'Fort Mac's telephone town-hall a life-saver in the midst of chaos'

Click here to download a case study of the government's response.

The title of this blog was the headline from a Toronto Star article in May 2016, a little over a year ago. It explains the outcome of an epic stakeholder engagement challenge, but doesn’t capture the planning and strategy behind the Government of Alberta’s monumental response to the crisis.

The city of Fort McMurray had been evacuated May 4, 2016 following massive forest fire that hit the city. The damage caused by the fire  became Canada's costliest natural disaster ever. Approximately 2,000 structures within the city were destroyed, and the final tally is estimated $3.5-billion.

The fire forced the evacuation of 90,000 people with no casualties directly related to the fire. This was truly miraculous, but the government then faced an enormous communications challenge - how exactly does one communicate with 90,000 people who have dispersed across the province and the country? Adding the fact that many people need support accessing basic human necessities, and the situation again had the potential to be catastrophic.

Government leaders were admirably communicating through traditional channels, like the media, to inform the evacuees of the latest developments, the status of the fire and plans for reentry. The government was also very active on social media. But all of these channels did not form a direct connection between the government and the evacuees. So rather than relying on the media or other secondhand distribution of information, the government used virtual town halls (or telephone town halls) to create a two-way channel directly between itself and nearly every evacuee.

The team leading the creation of the events were very thorough in their strategy and planning, and brought all of the key personnel into the room - with some joining remotely from Fort McMurray. The focus was always on the myriad of questions that evacuees may ask - they wanted to give them answers.

Normally, there are between two and three speakers at one of these events. The government decided to put no less than 15 experts around the table who had the most up-to-date information available to respond ion information channels. From the Premier and Minister of Municipal affairs to Alberta Wildfire, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, Alberta Health, Education, Human Services - all the bases were covered.

Evacuees who were having trouble accessing funds were identified and followed-up with. Updates on the fire’s status were to the minute. Criteria for assessing if it was safe to return was delivered by the Chief Medical Officer of Health. The security of the city was affirmed by the RCMP.

In addition, the Red Cross attended each event and played a pivotal role in the distribution of emergency supplies and funds. Other stakeholders were in attendance as well, like the Insurance Bureau of Canada which answered many complex questions about home insurance policies.

And it worked brilliantly. There was rarely a question that someone around the table couldn’t answer, even over the course of 17 events in 30 days, over 8,000 questions were registered, and approximately 700 answered. (You can only answer so many questions in 90 minutes.)

This experience was by far and away the most effective use of the telephone tech telephone town hall technology that I have ever seen in over five years and 250 events. Just as an example, on the first town hall, the government saw 3333 online audio participants - the previous record on events I’ve worked on was 45. This technology demonstrated incredible flexibility in bringing together so many people affected by the disaster, and connecting them with government leaders who had the most up-to-date information on virtually every aspect. And I mean up to date - these were the very people the media would talk to.

I recently spoke at a conference in London, UK about the governments response to this disaster. Many people in the audience found it amazing that this kind of technology exists and was able to be deployed so effectively in a crisis situation. The main factor in my view that allowed the government to respond was that they had an understanding of the technology having used it already for different policy engagement activities such as pre-budget consultations and policy consultations. Because of this familiarity and their understanding, they were able to deploy the technology very rapidly, within about a 36-hour turnaround time from the start of planning to implementation.

All in all, this had a very positive outcome for the government in the response from evacuees on the phone, and media coverage as well. And they were recognized for by the Institute of Public Administration Canada with an award. For me, the most notable thing is what we have not heard. We have not heard the ongoing narrative you often hear during these kinds of situations, which is "I didn't know anything.” Or "the government didn't tell us where we could find help” and "we had no idea what was going on."  These kind of comments simply don’t exist. And during a crisis of epic proportion's, sadly, that is sometimes the best a government could hope for - that the people felt their needs information needs were met.