Emergencies Then And Now: Y2k Revisited

Fire scene with unrecognizable firefighters and vehicles.

CHERYL LYON – Twenty four years ago, the pervasive, all-connecting computer world was not what it is now. As the turn of the millennium year 2000 approached, many, including some programmers, thought that computers might not interpret the numerals 00 as 2000, but as 1900. Apprehension grew that chaos might ensue. The shorthand for this phenomenon was “Y2K”1.

Throughout 1999, I had the unique experience of writing scenarios upon which to base annual municipal emergency preparedness training exercises for Peterborough City and County. The scenarios imagined plausible catastrophes in specific communities and a scripted series of “inputs” based on each scenario. For instance, a train wreck in Havelock, a propane explosion close to a major highway, a once-in-a-century flood.

Picture the training day: two separate rooms, one containing the scenario “inputters”; the other the Emergency Control Team. A self-contained communication system connected the two rooms. By telephone, the “inputters” feed progressively worsening details of the disaster scenario from the script to responders in the Team room. (No public airwaves were used in order to avoid possible public panic from “leaks” of the communication between the two rooms. In 1999, such exercises did not have today’s sophisticated digital connectivity and hardware.)

These legislated, annual, emergency exercises trained municipal authorities responsible for public safety and wellbeing to be ready for any kind of disaster or emergency − a reasonable expectation and one comforting to citizens (at least those who actually knew the exercises occurred.)

New Year’s Eve 1999 saw every member of the city Emergency Control Group on duty in a room in the downtown fire hall poised to respond to the possible disasters of a worldwide computer crash and its ramifications for public peace and order.

Picture the team of key municipal officials assembled in a room at the downtown fire hall: Mayor, Fire and Police Chiefs, Medical Officer of Health, key Department heads e.g. Social Services, Public Works , Communications etc. (some still in their New Year’s Eve party finery from a prior dinner together.) The atmosphere in the command centre is calm, even festive at times, given that it’s New Year’s Eve. But there’s an undercurrent of apprehension: no one really knows what to expect.

Will fire alarm or telephone systems fail? Will the electricity grid fry? When all is dark, what crimes might be committed on darkened streets with households hunkered in place? Will backup systems in key municipal services like water and sewage still work? Will the Public Information telephone line be jammed with calls from panicking citizens?

Emergencies Then and Now: From One-Of to Ongoing

Comparison of the scale and kinds of disasters routinely expected pre-1999 with the scale and duration of today’s Climate Crisis disasters yields an important insight: the need for a shift of perspective from managing events to managing continual change.

In a ‘traditional’ emergency, the response is to “events.” While there are discrete climate change events like floods and fires, the climate crisis is a never-ending chain of slowly-unfolding disasters whose origins are everywhere and whose end is not in sight. Can we say when climate change will end the same way we can reasonably predict when a chemical spill into the Otonabee River or a nearby propane depot blow up will end? Or when food will return to local grocery stores after planet-wide crop failures?

The traditional emergency response mindset assumes an event can be managed with the right practised procedures and control-minded calm. It aims at returning the status quo. However, climate change is not so much a series of distinct events as it is widespread, interconnected, ongoing changes to the status quo with hard to discern, in most cases, discrete beginnings and endings.

The words “management” and “event” do not serve us now. We may figure out how to “manage” cutting fossil fuel emissions but can we “manage” their ongoing impacts at every level of our community?

Common sense says that communities must still have national disaster plans, climate change adaptation plans and Peterborough’s own Emergency Response Plans.

Real “preparedness” in today’s terms demands a fresh look at them in light of the universal climate crisis with its novel challenges of duration, systemic failures and of social and psychological impacts.

The biggest missing element in disaster thinking is the call to change the human behaviours that have put us into this crisis.

Traditional emergency responses aim at “moving on,” getting over it, staying in control, during and after the disaster. ‘Mitigation’ is one of its first goals. It doesn’t use the words sustainability, resilience or adaptation. Existing preparedness training emphasizes ‘real time “reaction to any catastrophe: who the first responders on the scene should be, what resources to send where, and how to protect vital infrastructure.

Is this really what will work in managing climate change’s slow-moving, ongoing catastrophes of whole biologic and ecological systems? Climate change is as much about animals and plants and oceans and air as it is about humans. It will disrupt social peace and test the bonds of community.

Status quo forever?

All of us, in every community around the globe, have forever (well, since the beginning of human time) been living in the relative status quo of Nature what feels like forever.

Or: …a relative status quo of nature, where environmental conditions have remained stable for the last 10’000 years, which feels like forever to our species.

Certainly, the natural world has experienced had its enormous changes but none in the last 10,000 or so years (the Holocene Era) big enough to threaten human beings with the possibility of their own extinction. We don’t ordinarily see ourselves as one species among other species.

Local emergency management plans are implicitly based on maintaining the status quo and a return to it when it’s upset as soon as possible. This implies that an aim of emergency responses is to allay fear and keep the populace on an even keel. It assumes the ability to do the right actions automatically, through good training over and over, no matter what the catastrophe. But is such current training of minds in step with the increasing severity, rapid onset and duration of multiple crises at one time?

So what needs to change in our local emergency responses?

Certainly, we still need Fire and Police Departments’ readiness, protection of vital municipal services like water and sewage, communication lines to remain open, shelters to be quickly set up for the exposed and homeless, maintenance of back-up, off-grid power generation to vital services like hospitals, volunteers organized, etc.

The pillars of Ontario’s emergency preparedness are Prevention, Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery. These imply a beginning and end to a catastrophe. Climate change events and impacts will go on for a long, long time. Perhaps what’s most fundamentally needed now is deep examination of assumptions behind the present approach to emergency management and response.

For instance, what does it look like when the emergency at hand may not mean maintaining the status quo? How do official bodies of public safety and governance incorporate ongoing, novel, long-lasting change as opposed to one-of events? Does current emergency thinking and plan-making take into account the social and psychological reactions of whole populations under stress in a long, long, long catastrophic present? Our times call for such questions to be answered.

A good sign is that one of Emergency Management Ontario aims is “increasing society’s capacity to cope with changes in climate,” and has an “emergency management doctrine:” to provide “a single, province-wide Incident Management System that is capable of ensuring the effective, coordinated response to all incidents by Ontario’s various response organizations.”

Our local community will benefit from more information and understanding of how we will be served and protected in the new realities of the Climate Emergency.

Emergencies Then And Now: Y2k Revisited © 2023 by Cheryl Lyon in the Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

  1. Y2K stands for the year 2000, the beginning of our current millennium.  (The letter K stands for commonly  represents the number 1,000 ↩︎

3 Comments

  1. Good insightful analysis of differences between most of today’s global climate slow-motion types of devastation and a Y2K type one-time emergency. Both are unprecedented but one just steadily gets worse over decades. Different systems of response urgently need to be devised and adopted by frontline communities and entities like Transition groups with wide participation by cross-society stakeholders.

      • You’re welcome. We enjoy your insightful views and want to share them across Transition Town audiences and widespread permaculture and climate activists. Keep up the vital work of shedding light on emergency response matters, especially!

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