Canada’s international disaster responders have skills and experience that could be deployed in an emergency here at home

Responding to international emergencies following natural disasters equips health workers with knowledge and skills that are crucial in a crisis. They are uniquely prepared for the unpredictable conditions that follow disasters.

In Haiti, after the disastrous earthquake of 2010, I worked as a doctor in a medical team of the International Federation of the Red Cross. When a young woman joined us for hospital visits one day, I noticed her Canadian accent.

Then I asked her who she was. She was a medical student from Saskatchewan who just decided to show up and help. She had flown to the Dominican Republic and hitchhiked to Haiti. It was very dangerous for her to have done this alone, and without previous experience or training, she had nothing to do but go home.

It was clear that she was born out of a sincere desire to help, but had no idea what was really needed, or how disaster relief is organized.

Unique skills and experience

In 2004, I was working with an International Red Cross team in Aceh, Indonesia, after the catastrophic tsunami. I remember realizing how little I could have done without the many skills and great experience of my colleagues, who quickly set up an independent field hospital on a football pitch, with its own drinking water supply . Without them, I would have been as helpless as that medical student I met later in Haiti.

Such skills and qualities can be learned on the job, and many Canadians have already acquired them through international experience. We must do much more to prepare for increasingly frequent disasters and national emergencies by identifying, organizing, improving and using the resources we already have.

I have had the opportunity to serve in many international humanitarian crises and I learn from each one. I learn from others who do this work and the attributes that make them successful, whether through the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders or other NGOs responding to disasters around the world.

Smoke rises from railcars carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. in July 2013.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

They have learned to be relentlessly practical, relentlessly adaptive and resilient, and to see themselves as individual members of highly integrated, efficient and well-organized teams, ready to work as soon as they arrive.

Once a response moves from emergency to recovery, we all return to our “day to day” jobs across Canada and around the world. In my case, it’s being a family physician in Hamilton and teaching in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University and the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. Since the next call could come at any time, I’m thinking about what we’ve learned and how we can use those lessons.

disasters at home

We are very lucky to live where we live in relative prosperity, peace and security, but recent history has proven that disasters do happen here.

Think of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Mégantic, prolonged wildfires in western and northern Canada, or flooding around Hudson Bay and elsewhere.

Consider the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strain on Canadian hospitals, including equipment and staffing shortages and the logistical challenges of moving tests, personal protective equipment and vaccines there where they were needed.

Our various levels of government have done their best to respond to the pandemic, but their responses might have been quicker and better if they had called on people who had gone through similar crises abroad.

Our experts go out into the world and gain incredible experience, then return to their regular jobs, as doctors, nurses, logistics planners, engineers, safety experts or water engineers. As a country, we don’t do enough to catalog their skills and experiences to be ready when the time comes here – as they have been and they will surely be again.

Abundant expertise and experience

A few colleagues and I recently published an article in the Open Canadian Medical Association Journal outlining how lessons learned from the field can help Canada. Our article was based on interviews with people who had been deployed in multiple international crisis missions – some of them dozens of times.

The results showed how the international deployment acted as a real-life training setting by helping clinicians and team members acquire or refine specific skills, including agile decision-making, communication, and collaboration in high stress situations.

A gymnasium filled with beds and folding chairs
Cots litter the gymnasium floor of a reception center set up for evacuees from Fort McMurray, Alta., when the city was evacuated during a wildfire in 2016.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Halinda

Research participants noted that being part of a disaster response team puts a person in a very challenging environment where it is crucial to learn attributes such as quickly assessing complex situations and taking well-considered decisions. Experiencing broken infrastructure, limited resources and chaotic environments in disaster situations taught participants to be “able to think outside the box”.

Participants said it was important to understand the goals and context of the local community to address work challenges and solve problems effectively. They stressed the importance of cultural sensitivity during international deployments, including learning about and accepting other cultures, countries and languages. They noted that when responding to a disaster or emergency, engagement and true partnership with the local community ensures an effective, culturally appropriate and sustainable response.

This kind of learning is very valuable, and we should fuel that spark.

The main lesson is this: Canada has a wealth of expertise and experience here at home, but we don’t use it well — perhaps because we just don’t know what we have.

Before the next national disaster, it would be ideal for governments to create, maintain and use a central bank of expertise and contacts related to humanitarian aid and disasters, with people who have learned to work quickly, pragmatically and, above all, as a team.

Canadians are good in disasters. I saw it.

We need to realize, especially after this pandemic, that disasters don’t just happen “over there”. Let’s put that front and center and improve disaster preparedness at home.

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