The province’s severe fire seasons of 2017 and 2018 have prompted a group of researchers to look for better ways to communicate during times of crisis.
With the potential for wildfires and other disasters to now combine with ongoing crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, four researchers at TRU, including professor Michael Mehta, are looking for new models of crisis communication.
“The nature of risk has changed. The scale has changed,” Mehta said.
That changing scale is, in part, due to the secondary consequences of large-scale wildfires, such as mass evacuations and plumes of wildfire smoke that can stretch across the entire province.
Researchers will consult with the BC Wildfire Service (which is also partly funding the study), the City of Kamloops, First Nations groups, the provincial government and others to understand the crisis communication needs and experiences of various institutions in B.C.
Mehta said the way wildfire risks are communicated differs from when fires have just ignited to when they are spread across a large area, presenting broader risk issues. Part of what a different communication model could offer is a more collaborative, people-centred approach that considers multiple stakeholders.
The benefit of that is trust, Mehta said.
“There’s a need to examine better, more robust, more timely models that create better outcomes and more trust, and ultimately less damage,” he said.
Others involved include first responders, emergency social service workers, the health-care system and cities taking in evacuees.
“I think a more resilient model would do is allow us to account for all these externalities, as well, in a way that isn’t really addressed now,” Mehta said.
Multiple institutions stand to benefit from the research, including BC Wildfire Service, Emergency Management BC, Tk’emlups te Secwépemc, the City of Kamloops and Interior Health, Mehta said.
Mehta has been in the risk communications field for more than 25 years, including post-doctoral work at Queen’s University looking at communication and management of environmental health risk issues.
Other faculty involved include Wendy Gardner, who Mehta said brings natural sciences and fire ecology knowledge to the table; Wendy McKenzie, who has a background in disaster medicine and public health; and John Heshka, who adds risk modelling and legal knowledge to the mix. At least two graduate students will also be involved.
“I think we have a really strong team — very interdisciplinary across a lot of different faculties here at TRU,” he said.
The researchers have until June 2021 to complete a report, which will b eventually be published as an academic article.
The team had planned to hold a forum to collect information, but due to COVID-19, is now arranging video conferences with each individual group.