Alberta's Postmen deliver B.C. wildfire aid minus red tape
‘We don't have to wait and go through a lot of red tape. We can just get up and go,’ says group president
Kristopher Mercer was lying in bed one July night when he was jolted by a series of Facebook alerts on his phone just before midnight.
His phone was pulsing with messages and images signaling help was needed as wildfires in B.C. inched perilously close to residential communities.
Within a couple hours, he and his other contacts were sending trucks filled with food and supplies from Fort McMurray to Kamloops, B.C., where a homeowner was offering up their yard for receiving and dispersing donations.
"It's an instant thing. It's not like we need to wait for the next day," said Mercer, president of the Postmen across Alberta and Canada.
The Postmen have been on the ground collecting donations in communities from Lethbridge to Fort McMurray. Members can quickly set up drop-off centres, often next to grocery store parking lots.
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The Postmen fly under the radar when it comes to relief agencies. Unlike the Red Cross, the Postmen don't have slick marketing and fundraising campaigns. Instead, they rely on social media and volunteerism to respond to emergencies.
The group shuns bureaucracy, saying it delays help from getting to people fast enough.
"We don't have to wait and go through a lot of red tape. We can just get up and go," Mercer said.
The organization relies on volunteer members from divisions across Canada and the United States. Many members are police officers, social workers and ministers. Mercer is a Christian minister.
The organization got its name from the 1997 film The Postman, about a man who delivers undelivered postal packages in a dystopian future.
Falling through the cracks
The B.C. wildfires have been burning since July, and evacuation orders have displaced tens of thouands of residents. To date, an estimated 1,000 fires have burned more than one million hectares of forest.
Even though evacuation centres are no longer overflowing with people and the story has slipped from the national headlines, Mercer said help is still needed for Interior B.C. communities.
The Postmen say they hear stories of people who lost their identification and haven't been able to access government aid, and others who lost their homes and don't have insurance.
"Right at the beginning there's thousands of people who fell through the cracks and are left with nothing." Mercer said.
Scott Long, executive director of operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said he doesn't view these organizations as undercutting the work of his agency or the Red Cross.
Although the Alberta government contracted companies to help fill up cars during the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation, it was often private citizens and private groups like the Postmen that stepped up to fill the gaps.
"You try to work with them," Scott said. "There's a great deal of capacity among Albertans, whether it's gathering water or driving up the highway and starting to refuel people who ran out of gas."
Kimberley Nemrava, vice-president of the Red Cross for B.C and Yukon, also said the relief organization encourages these groups to work within the established emergency management systems. Also whenever possible the Red Cross attempts to partner with them.
"There is a role for individuals, for community organizations of many types," Nemrava said. "In fact, every organization should be thinking about how they are preparing for a disaster."
Both organizations emphasize that when disasters strike, the fastest way to get help to Canadians is to send money.
The Postmen say they aren't opposed to the government or the Red Cross, but challenge whether they should be the only relief game in town. The group argues these organizations aren't always the most effective and quickest because they are bound by strict protocols.
As much as possible, the Postmen post their requests and deliveries on a Facebook page that's open for public scrutiny.
"We just let people know that we are thankful for what [they] give us," Mercer said. "And we want you to see you have given us this donation and we are putting it into people's hands."