DEMSA teams up with CREW Toronto and U of T Engineers Without Borders to offer high school youth emergency exercise

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By: Hurania Melgar (DEMSA Logistics Coordinator) and Catherine Kenny (DEMSA Academic Liaison), MDEM Candidates, York University.

A few weekends ago, Catherine Kenny and I represented DEMSA and the MDEM program, and volunteered our afternoon to help out with the Social Change and Youth Leadership Challenge (SCYLC) run by the Engineers Without Borders—University of Toronto Chapter.

We volunteered with the community organization Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW)  to help facilitate a live exercise and dialogue with high school students, where they developed strategies for community disaster mitigation and engaged in thoughtful reflection on the communities we all live in and share.

Students map resources in Resilientville
Students map resources in Resilientville

Being halfway through my Master’s in Disaster and Emergency Management, it felt really good to be doing something that directly helps to build resiliency and to create awareness of the necessity of emergency preparedness.

The team at CREW created a scenario based on Hurricane Hazel, which caused extensive damage throughout the GTA in 1954. Approximately 60 students were divided into two rooms and we assisted CREW in running concurrent exercises. Using realistic maps of a section of Toronto, CREW created a fake emergency within a thousand person high-rise and initially asked students to locate possible resources within a 1.5km radius of this building. Following their findings, we asked them to create a plan for the evacuation of ten people with critical, time-sensitive needs. We increased the situation’s complexity—adding further issues such as downed power lines, flooded streets, and flooded basements—to demonstrate the fluid and unpredictable nature of disasters.

It was wonderful to see the students get engaged and come up with ideas about where they could get resources from, such as local restaurants, pharmacies, libraries, and what their options were for the evacuation of those ten people in dire need.

All the groups were given a laptop or had a smartphone with access to the internet. In many cases, groups said they would look up telephone numbers for local resources through the internet. Technological dependency was evident in these suggestions, but as we know, if there is no power, there is often no internet. To complicate matters, we then told them that each group’s cell phone only had enough battery to make two calls. Most groups decided to call 9-1-1, which is interesting because, as we know, in these kinds of emergencies, emergency services are extremely busy and may be unable to respond anytime soon.

The workshop flew by very quickly and it felt very rewarding to show the students through this exercise the importance of building community resiliency and social networks, being prepared, how complicated disaster response can become, and how important it is to remain adaptive in unexpected situations.

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Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW)

Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW) explores ways of communicating and promoting community adaptation to the rapidly increasing risks and hazards of extreme weather and the public health impacts.