How Paul Johnson uses his referee experience as head of Hamilton's pandemic response centre

Paul Johnson, the director of the city's emergency operations centre, says it will be a shame if the city goes back to the way it was before the pandemic.

The city can learn a lot from this experience, Johnson says, including how to help the most vulnerable

Paul Johnson is the director of the city's emergency operations centre. (Submitted by City of Hamilton)

Right before the City of Hamilton activated its emergency operations centre (EOC), Paul Johnson remembers travelling to Windsor and Burlington, judging basketball officials, and packing into locker rooms. 

There were no masks, and no physical distancing: just the thrum of championship games. 

"And then the next day — wham. Things have changed," Johnson said. 

The director of the EOC has officiated basketball in Hamilton for 32 seasons. But for the past 11 months, Johnson and his team have been making decisions on a starkly different court. 

The EOC acts as a command central for the city's pandemic response. While the health decisions are coordinated by Hamilton Public Health Services, the city's pandemic operations, from emergency shelter outreach to the closure of libraries and arenas, are funnelled through the EOC.

The centre's goals now, Johnson said, break down into three categories: protecting people from the virus, having a crisp vaccine roll out, and finally transitioning out of the COVID-19 pandemic. And Johnson, who's used to settling player disputes on the court, is coordinating the city's vast effort to manage it all. 

As incomparable as the two jobs are, Johnson said, the philosophy remains the same. Create good processes, gather people together, judge the situation, make sure you have an environment where people can speak their mind, and put all the details on the table. 

Recovery isn't a light switch

"If you do that, you bring together the right people with good information, you will make quality decisions," he said. 

"The transition, from the situation we're in today to living in a world after we start immunizing around COVID-19, it's not going to be a light switch. It's not one day we were in it, one day we're not. The fire started, the fire's out. It's not that kind of an emergency."

This recovery, he said, will be on a scale much greater than the city has ever experienced before. 

The real shame would be if everything just goes back to the way it was.- Paul Johnson, director of the emergency operations centre

It isn't about dealing with downed power lines or trees from a natural disasters, Johnson said, nor is it about taking down plexiglass barriers. It's a "public health emergency and a human emergency," he said, that has exposed vulnerabilities in sectors and institutional structures. 

"The real shame would be if everything just goes back to the way it was. That we treat this as some event," Johnson said.

Paul Johnson says the team in the centre guides the decisions, but those decisions are carried out by 8,000 other employees. This photo is near the pandemic's onset, which is why some people aren't wearing masks. (City of Hamilton)

On the court and off, Johnson is used to being in high-pressure situations. 

Before working for the city in 2010, Johnson facilitated decision-making in the non-profit sector where money is tight. He spent 15 years at Wesley Urban Ministries, including more than 10 as the executive director.

For four years, Johnson served as the city's director of neighbourhood and community initiatives, where he brought together residents to determine how to improve their neighbourhoods. From 2015 to 2018, he was the city's lead on the light-rail transit (LRT) project, a contentious $1-billion system the province has since cancelled and revived again. 

In 2018, he became the city's general manager of healthy and safe communities, which includes overseeing social services, affordable housing, child care centres, and the city's homelessness response. Of particular concern right now: long-term care and retirement homes, congregate settings, emergency shelters, lack of supportive housing, and helping small businesses.

'The man must be exhausted'

All these issues can't all be reformed at once, Johnson said. But as Hamilton looks at how to recover from the pandemic, both council and the community need to talk, and include voices of people that have experienced a horrific crisis. 

"If we don't think about that from a standpoint of how will it be different and better, then we're failing," he said.

Johnson was born and raised in Hamilton, and received a history degree from McMaster University. It's been hard for Hamilton to get rid of him, he said, with the exception of two-and-a-half years spent working in Europe.

Around 40 to 50 people used to share the EOC space, working 12 to 14 hours a day together. The centre moved virtual as more become known about COVID-19. This photo was taken near the pandemic's onset, which is why people are not wearing masks. (City of Hamilton)

Mayor Fred Eisenberger called Johnson a "gritty Hamiltonian," who sees that a job needs to be done and brings all hands on deck. 

"The man must be exhausted. But he's not showing any signs of that," he said. "I can tell you that the weight that's been on his shoulders has been phenomenal."

What we've learned so far

Johnson said he's proud to wear the stripes and blow the whistle as part of amateur sport. Order of Canada member Ron Foxcroft —  basketball referee and inventor of the Fox 40 pealess whistle — had presented him a fair play award and golden basketball around two years ago to acknowledge his time. 

And while Johnson might be the face of the EOC, he also noted that there's a team of a decision-makers behind the scenes. Workers in logistics, he said, emerged as his heroes early on in the pandemic, managing to clinch orders that would have expired in 15 minutes for desperately needed personal protective equipment.

When it comes to writing the city's pandemic playbook, he said, Hamilton will look at having its own supply for future emergencies.

"The hope that the province and the federal government will be there, we found that to be not the case. And I think that as a municipality, we should be prepared in the future," he said.

He also fears money coming from higher levels of government, which has helped the city "perform well," will start to disappear. 

Learning from mistakes

But we aren't at that recovery point yet, he said, and are still in the "critical phase." The virus continues to hospitalize and kill people, disrupt services, and disrupt people's lives. 

What he has counted on to steer through this has been other Hamiltonians. When you pick up the phone, Johnson said, the answer on the other end is "yes."

At worst, he said, it's "yes, but I just got to figure out how."

As for the EOC, it's better today than it was, Johnson said, because it kept evaluating how it was doing. Even after officiating in the world of sport, he said, someone breaks down his tape and sends him the decisions that were wrong. 

"If we don't learn from that," he said, "it's no different from my basketball games."