Burnaby firefighters and other emergency responders were kept beyond busy during the heat dome, which left 63 dead in Burnaby, this summer. (Burnaby Family Life / Facebook)

Where representation falls short in emergency response systems

Representation can help if done right—but the issues around emergency response go far deeper than that.

By Dustin Godfrey | December 22, 2021 |5:00 am

This is the third of three parts in a series on 911, emergency response, and who is represented beyond the dispatchers. Read our first part on a disagreement about representation that left an E-Comm seat vacant for two years. Or read part two on why it matters.

For many people, the shortcomings of BC’s emergency response system revealed themselves for what might have been the first time during the various climate-related disasters this year.

But for some—particularly people in marginalized communities—the failings were just a particularly glaring example of a system that already lets them down.

“When disasters strike, the most marginalized are even more vulnerable to being left behind. Lacking accessible alert systems, emergency egress, and shelter in an already inaccessible world,” said Aasiya Hussain.

“Losing power during emergencies means losing life-dependent medical devices and treatment, accessible communication, safe temperature control, hydration, nourishment, mobility, elevators, and exits to swiftly evacuate to accessible safe shelter.”

And BC faced an onslaught of major climate change-related events this year, from massive wildfires to the heat dome to the atmospheric river and major flooding—events that are expected to get more frequent and severe as climate change worsens.

Earlier this month, Burnaby Beacon spoke to officials about the importance of representation at decision-making tables, like on E-Comm. City councillors spoke about the value of gender representation and of getting mental health supports recognized at the E-Comm table.

Making representation safe

But the issues exposed by the summer’s heat dome and the flooding this fall are deeply systemic, according to a policy analyst and a disaster management specialist.

Hussain is CEO and founder of Ontario-based Ecohesian, an environmental and disaster management organization with a particular focus on disability and intersectional anti-oppression.

Drawing from her experience as a brown, racialized woman with disabilities, her work seeks to centre the “most vulnerable of people … to not leave us behind during disasters and everyday life.”

And she said meaningful representation at the boardroom level, if done right, can help. In particular, she pointed to the slogan “nothing about us without us” that has gained steam in recent years.

“Intersectional representation matters to avoid oppression denying us a resilient, just recovery. Marginalized communities are diverse and experience layers of oppression and disparity which make us more vulnerable to disasters,” Hussain said.

But she said representation won’t help without making those spaces work for the marginalized people that are being included.

“‘DEI’ [diversity, equity, and inclusion] representation is meaningless if it’s an unsafe space of microaggressions, tokenization, implicit and explicit bias,” Hussain said, pointing to Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s experience as a member of Parliament for Nunavut.

The single-term MP didn’t seek re-election this year due to racism she experienced in the nation’s capital. Other women of colour have similarly left politics, including Jessica McCallum-Miller, a Gitxsan, Nisga’a, and Tsimshian former city councillor in Terrace.

And they’re not isolated incidents.

“As a colonized racialized hijabi woman with disabilities, I’m among many marginalized peoples who face this in leadership and everyday life. This is why marginalized peoples are often forced to leave these unhealthy environments, to create our own safe spaces,” Hussain said.

“It's like they cut all the rescue rope the same length, and the plan is to ignore anyone who needs it longer or stronger.”

Photo: City of Abbotsford

‘A consequence of political choices’

Gabrielle Peters said the issue goes well beyond simply creating safe spaces for marginalized people to participate. For her, it’s about some of the fundamental values of rigid individualism that have been infused in our political system for close to half a century.

Peters is a Vancouver-based disabled writer and policy analyst who lives on disability benefits in social housing. And she said the deaths from the summer’s heat dome, “like the deaths in congregate care or as a result of workplace outbreaks, were a consequence of political choices, not science.”

“We can decide not to respond to emergencies in a way that sacrifices the lives of disabled people,” Peters said.

The severe heat wave left nearly 600 people dead in BC at the end of June and beginning of July this year, including 63 deaths in Burnaby that were attributed to the heat.

The issue was compounded when the sheer volume of 911 calls inundated dispatchers, and under-resourced paramedics were forced to leave non-urgent calls for up to eight hours.

While the issue received much coverage in the news, Peters said what has been missing in the discussion has been how those failures are reflective of “broader policy decisions and systemic issues.”

“We have a habit of treating each thing as an unrelated, stand-alone problem. It is as if the silos government arbitrarily establishes for ministries and departments are protected borders in the real world,” she said.

“You can’t ignore the role structural injustice plays in causing, worsening, addressing, and responding to emergencies.”

Peters noted a number of forms the systemic injustices can take—forcing disabled people to live off of impossibly low government stipends, ignoring evidence-based solutions to the toxic drug crisis, underfunding public housing, and failing to address colonial violence.

“These things cause emergencies and also cause specific issues within emergencies,” she said.

Capitalism and emergency response

But it’s not just the way the government treats people prior to emergencies—it’s also about how standardized responses leave specific people out of the equation.

“The government speaks about the public as if it is a monolith of similar needs but we live in a stratified society, not an egalitarian one,” she said.

“If you respond to emergencies and all your discussion around emergencies attempts to flatten out and ignore the differences then it actually exasperates them. It’s like they cut all the rescue rope the same length, and the plan is to ignore anyone who needs it longer or stronger.”

She said it’s symptomatic of shifts in political values that took root in the 1970s and ’80s with the rise of neoliberalism. It’s a free-market ideology defined by leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—but also by non-conservative politicians, like Jean Chretien.

Thatcher, the former British prime minister and a leader in the shift to free-market capitalism, once famously said there is no such thing as society, but simply individuals and families.

And that may be reflected in how we respond—or don’t—to many issues.

“We know that emergency response to climate-change related extreme weather and other disasters are based on ableism and classism and offload responsibility onto individuals,” Peters said.

“If people don’t have their own vehicles, how do they evacuate? If people don’t have enough money for food every month how do they stockpile supplies? Our emergency response structures need to reflect the reality of the society they operate in.”

“We don't need another white, middle class wheelchair user who believes their mere presence makes a difference on a board of anything.”

Photo: BC Wildfire Service

‘A system run by pyros’

The shift to neoliberalism began with decreasing funding or straight-up defunding support systems like welfare or disability pensions in the name of balancing budgets. But Peters said it has also created more need for those supports.

“Capitalism has created a social, political, cultural, and physical environment that is hostile to human existence. If it feels like there are fires everywhere it’s because we are living in a system run by pyros,” she said.

Peters and Hussain both agree that infusing lived experiences into public understanding of issues is important.

“How we prevent, mitigate, and respond to emergencies and disasters is influenced by whether these disparities are understood and dismantled with the nuance of lived experience,” Hussain said.

“We need to notice who isn’t at the table, question why, then dismantle these barriers to create and protect safe spaces for marginalized communities to have meaningful roles as decision-makers.”

And Peters said people on the margins need to be consulted about what the gaps are in our emergency response system—and the gaps that cause an over-reliance on that system.

“We know what isn’t working, and we are experts in figuring out ways to make it work if we have the resources to do it,” she said.

‘Heed the warnings of the vulnerable’

But she noted a disparity that needs to be overcome before that work can really take hold.

“We have watched throughout the pandemic the extent to which governments at all levels refuse to put public health above private interests of capital,” Peters said.

As such, she said, they “place poor and working-class lives at risk in order to protect the lifestyles of the wealthy and privileged.”

And simply adding representation won’t address that, she said.

“Structural oppression and systemic problems are not going to be undone by the ‘presence’ of one person or identity group. Breaking the glass ceiling in an oil corporation won’t solve climate change,” Peters said.

“We need people with lived experience who also have broader analysis and understanding of the system they are operating in. We don’t need another white, middle class wheelchair user who believes their mere presence makes a difference on a board of anything.”

Hussain, too, cautioned against tokenization of marginalized people in those spaces. But by meaningfully including people from the margins, she noted, we may not just react better in the moment.

“Heed the warnings of vulnerable, marginalized communities sounding the alarms long before disasters strike,” she said, “for early prevention, mitigation, and responding proactively, for a resilient, just recovery, which prioritizes the most vulnerable.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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