Last summer, when forest fires threatened whole communities in Northern Saskatchewan, many of those evacuated from their homes were brought to Saskatoon, where they were provided with shelter and services.

Saskatoon Health Region was one of several agencies that supported the evacuees during their unprecedented month-long stay in centres and hotels in Saskatoon. The Region’s staff had never assisted with an evacuation on a scale that large before – not in the number of people needing help, the length of time they needed to be away from their homes or the complexity of their healthcare needs.

Evacuation centre in Saskatoon in 2015

Thousands of evacuees from Saskatchewan’s northern forest fires came to Saskatoon at the end of June of 2015. They were housed in hotels and centres like this one, which stood empty by the end of July. Saskatoon Health Region stepped up to ensure the evacuees had access to medical services.

The Region’s Primary Health and Population and Public Health departments had always handled previous evacuations, but those evacuations were always small and short enough that they rarely needed assistance from other departments. In the summer of 2015, many other departments in the Region had to get involved for the first time.

After the evacuation ended, and the Region and other agencies involved looked back on what had happened, a small group of Region staff came together to develop a plan for the Region’s response for future evacuations.

“It was basically to get plans in place for what each of our departments does for an evacuation, depending on the severity of the situation,” said Christa Sather of Emergency Planning and Preparedness (EPP), a member of the group of staff doing the planning. Other members of the group include Angela Luron and Jennifer Hiebert from Primary Health, and Leslie Rea from Population and Public Health.

“We were able to mobilize the right resources in the summer of 2015,” said Luron, “but it was always on the fly. We did really well as a team, but when it was all done, we saw an opportunity for more organizational pre-planning.”

“Our plan makes it clear ahead of time what needs to be done and when,” said Sather.

The group consulted with all Region departments involved with the evacuations last year, including Mental Health and Addictions staff, Home Care, and First Nations and Métis Health, and received feedback on what they felt worked and what didn’t in 2015. The team then started to put together definitions and to clarify processes, including roles and responsibilities. The plan is nearly complete now.

“The levels of response we’ve written are key,” said Hiebert.

Those levels of response range from 1 to 4, from very small evacuations to those even bigger than what was experienced in 2015.

The levels of response stipulate trigger points for escalating the Region’s response, so it’s clear at what time extra resources are needed and what those extra resources might be.

“Triggers have been used in Population and Public Health since the H1N1 Pandemic and they have guided, not only daily huddles but also team resource allocation” said Suzanne Mahaffey, Director of Population and Public Health.

“Level 1 is when we’re expecting a brief evacuation, like the one that occurred on the May long weekend in 2015,” Luron said. “Those evacuations are small and short, which is kind of rare.”

Level 2 is where the evacuations to Saskatoon usually fall – more than 200 people, but less than 400 evacuated for between one and two weeks, involving one or more facilities, and where services like home care, mental health services or acute care services are needed.

Levels 3 and 4 are where evacuations like  the one in 2015 falls – over 400 people, more than one facility, and increased need of more services, lasting 14 to 30 plus days.

The Region’s evacuation plan also includes standard work for those involved in the response, so it’s less overwhelming for staff. The standard work for Primary Health teams outlines the level of clinical support provided, and offers information on working with community connections, such as pharmacies and companies that supply things like oxygen tanks. Population Public Health’s standard work deals with how to handle disease outbreaks in evacuation centres, as well as a protocol for treatments, and guidelines for how temporary food service areas and sanitation is set up. EPP’s standard work outlines scheduling for managers on-call and what they do to support those involved in the evacuation, along with the roles and responsibilities of the departments involved.

“Part of the plan is also around ensuring that staff are connecting on a daily basis, so it’s clear when more support is needed and who will be able to meet that need,” said Sather.

How to connect with community partners and other departments is also a key component of the plan.

“It can be a hard environment to work in if you don’t know the plan and trust your community partners,” said Sather. “This plan will allow staff to feel comfortable about the Region’s role, and what other partners are looking after.”

Within the next week, Home Care and Mental Health and Addiction Services will engage in the planning process and develop their standard work as needed.

Once the plan has been finalized, the Region will share it with community partners and other health regions.

Population and Public Health is testing their plan in a table top exercise in the next month.