Fort Mac fire puts employers in crisis mode

Communication, transparency critical in emergency: Experts

For Candace Bernstein, May 3 started out with blue skies and sunshine in Fort McMurray. While she knew there was a forest fire in the area, she was busy working as an HR business partner at the office of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Then the first email came in, around 1:25 pm. It was a press release from her employer telling residents about a temporary evacuation order because of the encroaching fire. Just 30 minutes later, it was a mandatory evacuation.

“I walked to the other side of my building and I looked out the window and panic ensued,” said Bernstein. “All you see is a giant wall of thick, dark smoke and you kind of see the glowing from the flames.”

People weren’t sure what to do, she said. “I don’t think my manager thought it was that serious because there was kind of no communication.”

But at 2:15, Bernstein left the building along with others.

“You can’t really work when you’re in darkness, you’re looking out and you’re like, ‘That just doesn’t look good,’” she said. “When I left the building, I took a photo. I was like, ‘Holy s---.’ I was running to my car.”

Finding one gas station out of gas, she waited more than 30 minutes at another to fill up her car and then headed out of town with nothing but a gym bag filled with workout clothes and her purse.

“The only words I can use to describe what I saw was apocalyptic. I was standing watching RCMP officers in blowing ash, smoke, there was embers, trying to direct traffic,” said Bernstein. “I saw people running with their cats and their pets in their hands, running from their homes.”

Bernstein made it safely to Edmonton and went on to Victoria to meet up with her fiancé. As far as she knows, her house is still standing, but two business partners did lose their homes.

Bad timing
The wildfires came at a really hard time for Fort McMurray, said Janet Salopek, partner and senior consultant at Salopek & Associates in Calgary. 

“People have been laid off, people are already struggling, businesses are already struggling — and here we go again.” 

But in dealing with a crisis such as this, employee safety is the number one concern, she said, and employers won’t bring people back to work until it’s safe to do so. 

“Really, the leaders need to think about ‘What do we do in the interim?’”

During the 2013 flooding in Calgary, many businesses set up satellite offices in other people’s boardrooms, said Salopek.

“Most organizations have emergency response so they will have data integrity and all of that, so they can still contact people… they can quickly get up and get going again and reach out.”

Making sure people are safe is paramount, said Brian Brown, senior partner at Mercer in Calgary.

“This was a pretty immediate situation and mandatory evacuation — ‘Get out’ — with not lots of time to plan for various things so, in some cases, people forgot medication at home that they may need. So (it’s about) what steps can an employer take to help make sure that people get access to that information.”

Most companies have recovery teams and recovery plans in place, said Brown. 

“We saw that take action when we had the floods in Calgary a few years back, so I think that they’re well-equipped in terms of risk management, risk mitigation, so there’s teams already in place and big companies have got call centres where employees can phone in.”

And with events such as the fire at Slave Lake in 2011, more employers have contingency plans.

“Boards are demanding it — it’s just part of business in terms of risk mitigation,” he said.

In a state of emergency, the big concern for the municipality is business continuity which, at one time, was more about pandemic planning, said Bernstein.

“It’s now these major natural disasters and where pandemic planning was more about, ‘Oh, if your people can’t come into work.’ Now it’s your critical infrastructure, like what if your buildings are flooded, what if your buildings are burning down. That’s sort of the big issue right now.”

While not immediately threatened by the fire, oilsands operations were challenged by smoke and many employees were displaced. In addition to offering accommodation for them and their families, employers went online to communicate with employees about the situation.

Suncor, for example, advised it was “reducing production at our regional facilities in order to allow employees and their families to get to safety” and “If you have found safe accommodation for the night, stay put and do not risk any further unnecessary travel.”

In a crisis like this, it’s all about communication, said Salopek. 

“Get out right away and send out a message (about) what this means for the business,” she said. “HR has a huge role to play in communication and coaching the managers and the leaders and also employees on what they need to be doing around communication.”

It’s also important for employees to communicate back to keep their employer updated on their situation, said Salopek.
“That’s going to be important to the workforce planning.”

Suncor, for example, encouraged people to get in touch: “It’s important for us to know where everyone is and how to be in touch with you. To continue to support you and to facilitate this process, we want to collect and maintain the most current and up-to-date information about displaced employees. This will also help us to co-ordinate the workforce that we will need to return to work.”

Communication means using all ways possible, such as websites, Facebook, Twitter and a central contact line, said Debby Carreau, CEO and founder of Inspired HR in Calgary. 

And having one main contact person is also important.

“You don’t want different people getting different messages if they call different members of your team. Or they may call people that don’t necessarily have all the facts, so I encourage them to have one point person,” she said.

It’s also important to be as open and honest with staff as possible, said Carreau.

“Their whole life has been uprooted and the last thing they need to worry about now is guessing in terms of their employment. Even if it’s bad news, I encourage employers to make sure they’re being transparent and sharing news because the unknown is worse than certainty in cases like this.”

From an insurance perspective and from a government perspective, employers also need to understand what they can and can’t do, or what they need to do, when it comes to business loss insurance or layoffs, she said.

“We need to make sure, from a benefit standpoint, are employees still taken care of, with the medical and the dental? And obviously pay is a huge one — are they going to be paid through EI, are we going to be able to pay them through insurance, are we going to have to look at other government resources so we can support our employees? So there are a lot of pieces.”

It’s still early days and there are probably different sources of income for employers, said Brown.

“As they sort this through, no doubt there will be business interruption insurance that may cover off costs, depending upon who’s been impacted,” he said. “I think, in some cases, there will be interest-free loans. It’ll vary company by company as to how they look after their people.”

Syncrude, for example, tweeted that employee pay was secure, “including (an) emergency advance to be processed for May 10. There is no need to apply for EI benefits.”
The Wood Buffalo municipality said all employees would be paid until June 30 or until they are back at work, said Bernstein, and necessary staff, such as senior management, essential services and emergency services, are back in Fort McMurray. However, people were being housed in the oilsands work camps north of the city as they were not allowed back in their homes.

“This poses a challenge because there is limited housing available until the evacuation order is lifted.  This is also the challenge of being in a small isolated community and what makes this so unprecedented — the closest large city to house this many people is 500 km away,” she said.

A lot of employees are dealing with the loss of their homes or have homes with major structural damage, said Bernstein.
“I don’t know what if any leave they will receive to support them through that. I also suspect there will be staff calling in sick due to the stress of the situation, increasing disability claims.”

HR can help in connecting employees with the employee assistance program, said Salopek. And when possible, employers should cut employees some slack so they can attend to personal matters.

“If managed properly, this is what builds stronger teams. It’s terrible what’s happening right now but when managed correctly, this creates stronger teams, it really does. But communication is at the root and foundation of it all, and staying true. Many organizations say, ‘These are the values of our organization.’ Well, now’s the time to revisit your values… and walk them.”

Without a doubt, this is where organizations’ true colours show through, said Carreau.

“A lot of it comes down to communication. It’s not always the company that throws the most money at workers, it’s the ones that — you talk about empathy — understand what people are going through. And you help how you can and you’re honest with them, and as loyal as you can be. And if you take good care of them, they’re going to be loyal to you.” 

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