Claude Lahaie, Associate Director Emergency Measures and Fire Prevention

"Our mandate also requires us to run simulation emergency exercises and we will be doing a live one on campus in the near future." / Photo: Claudio CalligarisIn helping keep McGill safe, this man has to think the unthinkable

By Neale McDevitt

It is a hot sunny day in early September but the blinds in Claude Lahaie’s office are drawn and the lights are out. Lahaie suffers from photophobia, a condition that leaves him ultra-sensitive to light. Even a few hours in the glaring sun can trigger painful headaches. It is ironic because the very nature of Lahaie’s job as Associate Director Emergency Measures and Fire Prevention means he could be thrust into the spotlight at any minute should McGill be faced with an emergency situation. “There’s so much involved in drafting an Emergency Plan,” he said in a recent interview with the McGill Reporter. “But, to a person, we all hope that all our hard work goes unused.”

When was the Emergency Measures and Fire Prevention Service unit created?

We started operations on Jan. 1, but we had presented the Provost with a draft of the Emergency Plan as early as the summer of 2007.

What is your mandate?

In the most simple terms, we are committed to the safety of every person who comes to McGill – students, staff, faculty and visitors.

And in not-so-simple terms?

Our first priority was to develop an Emergency Response Plan for the University. This meant creating official policy and emergency measures to be followed in the event of an incident. Obviously, before we could move on to other issues, we had to make sure we could respond to emergencies.

Having established the Plan, we moved on to the next part of our mandate which is to educate and inform the McGill community on our operations and what role they can play in keeping McGill safe.

How will you do that?

Actually, we’ve already started by mass-mailing an Emergency Procedures pamphlet to staff. The flyer provides people with important guidelines as to what to do in case of everything from fires and elevator emergencies to hostile intruders and hazardous waste.

We’ve also produced a larger Emergency Guide that outlines emergency procedures in greater detail. We will be distributing these comprehensive guides in common locations where people gather.

And we will also be starting a poster campaign on both campuses designed to inform the public.

Finally, we will be providing a series of information sessions on campus so that people can hear and see firsthand what we’ve done, what we are doing and what we are planning for the future.

And of everything you are trying to teach people, what is the most important for them to remember?

If you dial 911 from a cell phone, please call 398-3000 if you are downtown or 398-7777 at the Macdonald Campus immediately afterward. This will connect you with a dispatcher who should be made aware of any incident. We’ve had instances where somebody has called 911 from a cell phone, the ambulance shows up and there is no security there to open the door, no security to take control of the elevator, no security to make sure things run smoothly. We’ve also had instances when an ambulance and fire engine have arrived on campus and the dispatcher only knows because he sees it on his camera. Please make sure you call 3000 or 7777 after you’ve spoken to 911 on your cell.

What about from a campus pay phone?

On the downtown campus, there isn’t a need to call 3000 in that case because all 911 calls from a campus pay phone immediately link to campus Security and become a three-way call. Mac phones don’t have that capability, however, so people there still need to call 7777 afterward.

OK, so once the public has been informed, what next?

The educational aspect of this never really stops, actually. The more informed people are, the better prepared they are for any eventuality.

But once the educational phase is up and running, we will move on to develop the business recovery and continuity side of things. How quickly after an incident can we get up and running? We’ll need to get every department and faculty to prepare a mini emergency plan with information on who to contact in what situation. As well, they will have to prepare a list of what they will need from the University to recover from different emergencies.

When you talk about business recovery, it starts the moment the incident is over. We know that parents are starting to shop for schools that are well prepared. We don’t want the competition to be about anything other than teaching, so we have to be equal or better in our preparedness. The criteria shouldn’t be about whether or not we can handle a flood or how many bottles of water we can provide in an hour – our primary reason for business is teaching and learning.

Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. Someone calls in an incident – what happens next?

Someone dials 3000 and reports it. Next, our dispatcher must decide and assess what next steps are to be taken. When should they send a patrolman and when should they call the Incident Commander (IC) He or she will send a patrolman for sure, but when does it escalate to the next level? We are going to have to train our dispatchers to make these sorts of judgments.

As soon as the IC has been contacted it is up to him/her to assess the situation and get the ball rolling. The IC will have ultimate command over the incident within the university. When the police and fire departments show up, it becomes  a unified command. We’ll still run the McGill operations, but we will be working in tandem with the police so that the decisions will be unified.

We are working with the people at Network and Communications Services to finalize a Blackberry network so that all of the Emergency Plan members [two groups of  20-30 people] are hooked up. Using their Blackberries, members can contact everyone else to inform them of a situation and to give them updates. The ICs can use this system to send immediate notification to their group.

How will we get the word out to students and faculty in the classrooms?

Mass notification is a little trickier in Canada than it is in the U.S. because of Industry Canada’s regulations regarding mass text messages. It isn’t very easy to do.

While we’re still looking into possible text message solutions, we are also moving ahead in other areas. First, we will still be able to send an email to all staff and students immediately should the situation warrant it. We are also going to change the phones in all classrooms so that we can log into the system and speak directly to everyone on speaker phone.

As we update some of our older fire alarms, we will convert them so that the bell rings through a speaker system which, like the phones, we will be able to use to give out information.

McGill has operated without an Emergency Plan for a long time. Why do we need one now?

I’ve been here for 24 years [20 with Waste Management] and I’ve seen all sorts of emergency situations. McGill has been very fortunate to have quality people who knew what to do at the critical moment. But we can’t rely on good fortune forever. Now we have to plan for the future.

There are standards set by the Canadian Standards Association in terms of the minimum readiness for any eventualities. These are set templates but, for McGill, these standards are not enough. We will take them and build upon them.

When you talk about “any eventualities” does it depress you to think about the worst-case scenarios?

It’s my job to think the unthinkable. It is essential for us to understand that the creation of this office was, in large part, due to the tragic events at Dawson College and Virginia Tech because they are an unfortunate reality in our world. To ignore that reality is to be irresponsible. I read the Virginia Tech report three times and each time it was a big help in finding out what went right and what went wrong.

Claude Lahaie’s first job

My first job was pumping gas at a gas bar in Laval when I was 15. It was also the first time I was held up. My emergency plan? [Laughing] Give him the cash. It’s funny, but it all happened so quickly that I didn’t really have time to be scared. Besides, I’m not really the type to get too excited. Good thing too – I was held up two more times after that.