Healthy Living in the North

How Northern Health is changing the way it communicates in emergencies

Four of five members of the team that implemented SnapComms is pictured.

The Northern Health SnapComms team. Left to right: Laura Johnson, Project Coordinator, Service Delivery; Jim Fitzpatrick, Director, Health Emergency Management BC, North; Anne Scott, Regional Manager, Corporate and Program Communications; Brandan Spyker, Intranet Specialist. Unavailable for photo: Amber Frizzi, Coordinator, Health Emergency Management BC, North.

During the 2017 wildfires, Northern Health facilities in Prince George and Quesnel took in more than 300 evacuees over a six-week period.

After the evacuees returned home, many departments in the organization went through a strategic review of what worked and what we could improve on if a similar situation occurred again. While there was a lot to celebrate around the unprecedented effort, one area for improvement was our communication to frontline staff and doctors. Northern Health’s leadership sent many updates by email during the wildfire situation, but staff and doctors may rarely check emails because of their other duties.

To help solve this problem, Northern Health has started using innovative third-party technology to keep patients, staff, and doctors safe in emergencies. The technology, called SnapComms, is used by more than 150 health care organizations worldwide, and can send alerts that make emergency messages almost unmissable.

An article on Northern Health’s use of SnapComms was recently featured in Canadian Healthcare Technology, a magazine with over 12,000 readers across the country. We even made the front cover! Check it out to learn more about how SnapComms will help Northern Health staff during an emergency.

Mike Erickson

About Mike Erickson

Mike Erickson is the Communications Specialist, Content Development and Engagement at Northern Health, and has been with the organization since 2013. He grew up in the Lower Mainland and has called Prince George home since 2007. In his spare time, Mike enjoys spending time with friends and family, sports, reading, movies, and generally nerding out. He loves the slower pace of life and lack of traffic in the North.

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Northern Health emergency guides spark national interest

The cover of the Relocation Guide is pictured.

The Relocation Guide, for use if your community is under evacuation alert, and NH wants to relocate patients or residents proactively.

Two unique Northern Health handbooks developed in the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires are inspiring other health organizations in BC and across Canada.

One guides hospitals and other health care facilities on how to safely relocate their patients during an emergency (for example, moving them to another community).

The other gives tips on how to receive patients being transferred from elsewhere – like when 254 hospital patients and care home residents from the Cariboo were evacuated to Prince George and Quesnel in 2017.

“Together, the two guides can help an organization cope in the face of emergency,” says Jana Hargreaves, Coordinator, Northern Health Emergency Management, who led the guides’ development. “Having clear guidelines in a crisis should result in better care for the patients involved.”

Other health authorities in BC have expressed interest in making their own versions of the Northern Health guidebooks, and there’s also been interest from Nova Scotia and the Yukon.

The cover of the Receiving Guide is pictured.

The Receiving Guide, for facilities and communities hosting evacuated patient/residents from another community.

“The concept of a quick-access document that an emergency operations centre can refer to during a crisis is unique and has been championed by Jana,” says Jim Fitzpatrick, Director, Northern Health Emergency Management. “Other organizations are requesting the information to see what we’ve done and how they could adapt it to their operations.”

The team at Northern Health likes to think of the two guides as “evergreen pathfinder” documents – in other words, they’re constantly evolving.

“It’s important to always be on the lookout to improve them,” says Jim. “There may be similar documents out there, but we haven’t found them yet. If we do, we’ll definitely review them with the intent to learn and adopt as appropriate.”

Anne Scott

About Anne Scott

Anne is a communications officer at Northern Health; she lives in Prince George with her husband Andrew Watkinson. Her current health goals are to do a pull-up and more than one consecutive “real” push-up. She also dreams of becoming a master’s level competitive sprinter and finding a publisher for her children’s book on colourblindness. Anne enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, reading, writing, sugar-free chocolate, and napping -- sometimes all on the same day!

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Smokeless summers start with us

Robbie Pozer (left) and TJ Sweetnam (right) with their forest firefighting gear on.

Two young men, arms over each other’s shoulders, are facing the camera and are dressed in forest fighting gear, including backpacks, pouches on their chests, helmets, and gloves.

I can still hear it. The sharp, piercing noise of the air horn that signaled a fire call from the Fire Centre, closely chased by the “wok wok wok” sound of our helicopter winding up. The memory brings back the emotions that always followed those sounds: initial excitement, slight anxiety, and the “I hope this isn’t the one that burns down the province” thought.

Such is the life of an Initial Attack Crew Leader with BC Wildfire Services, which I was from 2013-2015.

Wildfires are part of our ecosystem’s cycle. Truthfully, getting to see the full-circle effect of a wildfire is pretty cool – it was one of the more rewarding parts of the job for me. The green that comes through the burn after the fire has been out for a while is pretty spectacular. In no time, the buzz of insects returns and all sorts of creatures start stirring, preparing to make the area home again.

But, despite how positive all of this sounds, there are good fires and there are bad fires. And sadly, it’s only a 60:40 ratio.

A good fire (60%)

In a good fire, the weather has dried out the ground fuels (leaves, grass, downed branches) and lightning storms have come through, smacking a few trees around, sparking them up, and starting the natural renewal cycle. There’s also the elusive fire where a beaver chews through a poplar too quickly, lighting the deciduous tree up through raw friction. The beaver – an impressive and underrated species, in my opinion!

Whatever the cause, responders fly out, make a decision on whether or not the fire is safe to action, and then decide on the steps and resources needed to contain the fire effectively. They put the wet stuff on the hot stuff, direct the fire into a zone where it will burn itself out, and consider hundreds of other options and actions to end the fire and smoke.

A small forest fire burns in northeast BC.

A large fire, although small by forest-fire standards, is surrounded by trees.

A bad fire (40%)

Here’s an example of a bad fire situation:

A group of campers decide that they are exempt from the campfire ban, and are going to enjoy the weekend in whatever way they please. They make a campfire that doesn’t follow BC’s campfire regulations, they light off fireworks into the dry forest, and they take their squad of ATVs, equipped with piping hot exhausts, into the tall grass.

The emergency response? The exact same as a good fire, but with a few kicks.

These fires typically start in protected areas or close to structures, putting our parks and communities in danger. This means the crews have to issue fines, protect structures, or worse: knock on doors to let people know that they need to evacuate their homes for safety.

What you can do?

It’s our job to minimize our footprint on the forests each fire season. Instead of looking back on the summer, wishing that we had fewer smoky days, let’s be productive!

  • Check the current campfire restrictions for the area you’ll be in.
  • Completely extinguish your campfire before you go to sleep or leave your fire for any period of time.
  • Do not discard smoking materials from vehicles.
  • If you see a fire, report it! Dial 1-800-663-5555 or *5555.

Check out more tips at the Government of BC’s Wildfire Prevention page.

If you do find yourself in smoky skies this summer, it’s best to limit your exposure and try not to exert yourself – it can be hard on your health. Check out Paula’s blog, Breathe easier during smoky skies, for ideas on what to do if wildfire smoke causes poor air quality.

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Checking in with a wildfire evacuee one year later: “How they treated me in Prince George, I just couldn’t believe it”

Three men, all evacuees from the Williams Lake Seniors' Village, pictured at the UNBC residences during the 2017 wildfires.

L – R: Keith McCreight, Gordon Woods, and Sture Kallman, all evacuees from the Williams Lake Seniors’ Village, pictured at the UNBC residences during the 2017 wildfires. Woods passed away earlier this year.

Sture Kallman has nothing but positive memories of his time as an evacuee during 2017’s wildfires. Kallman, 88, is a resident of Williams Lake Seniors Village, and was evacuated to Prince George last year along with other residents in mid-July 2017.

“I just about cried when I left Prince George because of how well you treated us,” said the former high-wire artist. “I met so many nice people, and you made us feel so good right from the very first minute we arrived there.”

Kallman was impressed with how the city coped with the influx of evacuees.

“I just couldn’t believe it, taking on 10,000 people. I couldn’t believe it could be done so wonderfully,” he said. “The mayors of Prince George and Williams Lake — they had a big load on their shoulders to carry, to be able to make decisions from day to day.”

He was impressed by the healthcare services he received as well, recalling how a doctor took the time to check on him at 11pm one night.

“I know the doctors were overworked with that tremendous increase of people, and especially when elderly people come, they need more attention,” he says. “When I left Prince George, I wished I could write a thank you letter to the people who looked after all of us and were so wonderful.”

A highlight of his time in Prince George was a trip to the circus with Brenda Schlesinger, a project manager at UNBC, who invited Kallman to attend with her family after learning he had worked as a high-wire performer in his youth.

Schlesinger also took Kallman to Aleza Lake, where he was able to savour “wonderful memories from when I worked there.”

“It was also great to see how the business people responded to the crisis, giving discounts to evacuees,” he added. “I just couldn’t believe how good it could be. I also enjoyed the wonderful entertainments every night.”

Evacuations are not planned for Williams Lake this year, but Kallman says, “If I was evacuated again, I would love to come back to Prince George – they treated us like kings!”

He was happy to return home to Williams Lake Seniors Village after the 2017 fire season was over.

“It was so nice to come home and I was really proud of the people here, how well they looked after everything,” he said. “They did a tremendous job of it, and they made us feel really welcome back, they made us feel really at home.”

After returning home, Kallman had hip surgery in Kamloops and is now walking a little. “Every day, I feel improvement,” he said.

Kallman, who will be 89 on September 25th, attributes his health and longevity to hard physical work and describes moving to Canada from Sweden as “the best thing I ever did.”

Anne Scott

About Anne Scott

Anne is a communications officer at Northern Health; she lives in Prince George with her husband Andrew Watkinson. Her current health goals are to do a pull-up and more than one consecutive “real” push-up. She also dreams of becoming a master’s level competitive sprinter and finding a publisher for her children’s book on colourblindness. Anne enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, reading, writing, sugar-free chocolate, and napping -- sometimes all on the same day!

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