Toronto ice storm: Ford made 'right decision' on state of emergency

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who has faced questions and some criticism over his refusal to call a state of emergency after the ice storm left tens of thousands of people without power for days, is getting support for his decision from several experts in emergency management.
Several city councillors have criticized Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for not declaring a state of emergency following the ice storm. But some experts in emergency management say Ford made the right call. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who has faced questions and some criticism over his refusal to call a state of emergency after the ice storm left tens of thousands of people without power for days, is getting support for his decision from several experts in emergency management.

Richard Kinchlea, chair of the Emergency Management and Public Safety Institute at Centennial College, said he didn't believe the situation was ever out of control or bad enough to declare an emergency and that the city seemed to be handling the crisis fairly well. 

"Some mayors may have [made the declaration]. Most, in my experience, would have come to the decision that no, looking at it objectively, there's not enough criteria here to make that declaration. So I think he made the right decision," Kinchlea told CBC News.

Kinchlea added that declaring a state of emergency would have done "absolutely nothing" in getting the power restored any faster. Many of the front-line services have mutual aid agreements in place, meaning they will get additional resources without the declaration of a state of emergency, he said.

Ali Asgary, an associate professor for York University's emergency management program, also said that while the situation was an emergency and that lots of people were under stress and pressure, it didn't rise to the level of a "state of emergency."

"This was an incident that of course impacted a large number of people but impacted in a way that was not, let's say, life threatening," Asgary said. "And also the property damage was not significant enough in that sense."

Because the damage and power outages were scattered around Toronto, the normal functioning of the city wasn't disrupted in a significant way in which the city was overwhelmed or that people's lives or property were in real danger, Asgary added.

Had the forecasts come true and strong winds had started knocking branches off into more power lines, creating more outages, then a state of emergency may have been warranted, he said.

Several city councillors have criticized Ford for not making the emergency declaration. Ford was stripped of a series of powers by Toronto council following a drug-related scandal that has made headlines around the world. Some of his powers have already been handed to Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly. If Ford had made a state of emergency declaration, responsibility for overseeing the emergency response would have shifted to the deputy mayor.

But Ford has insisted that the crisis, which at its peak left 300,000 customers without power, didn't justify the declaration. Both the city manager and deputy city manager also backed Ford's decision. Toronto Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong, the chair of the public works committee, who is seen as a potential rival against Ford in the next mayoral election, also said the declaration was not needed.

No clear guidelines

In Canada, every municipality can declare a state of emergency based on whether it believes it has control of a given situation in a particular crisis or whether it needs external resources to come in to assist, Kinchlea explained.

But there are no real clear guidelines on when a municipality should make such a declaration, he said. However, making the declaration does not mean the municipality will get whatever it wants from the province, which can include external resources such as finances, labour, equipment, or special teams.

"Declaring an emergency is saying 'I need help.' Then you work with the province to see what needs to come in and how that works," Kinchlea said. "Because those resources are essentially either owned, or in an emergency, controlled by the province. It's not up to the municipality to say 'I need this this this and this' and get them all. It becomes a negotiation."

Under the City of Toronto Act, the city can, for emergency response purposes, "acquire alternative headquarters for the City government outside the city" and "designate evacuation routes and empower members of the city police force to require persons to use them."

But declaring a state of emergency also, in some cases, allows government officials to bypass some of the bureaucracy if, for example, a contractor is needed to be hired for a particular task. It also can alleviate some of the financial burden on the city by relying on provincial resources. 

"In terms of provincial help, the province is going to help you whether you declare or not, if you ask," Kinchea said. adding that it's a "big wake-up call" to the province and the rest of the world that the situation is serious. 

"[It's] not someone saying 'we could use this stuff,' it's 'we really need this stuff now' and that gives direction to the provincial emergency operation centre to go out and find the stuff."

Worries about provincial support

Deputy city manager John Livey said they had been concerned the province would not give the city help it needed unless it declared a state of emergency.

“But that turned out to not be the case," he said.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne had said the province was willing to offer any support that is needed. 

Yet some have suggested declaring a state of emergency may have helped the sick or elderly trapped in highrise apartments with no power.

"What would the declaration of an emergency do for these people? Would it really help them?" Kinchea asked. "Would it really make the situation better? And in the case of simply declaring an emergency, no. There's nothing in that declaration that would help them. There's nothing that a declaration would allow the city to do to help these people that they couldn't do without that declaration."