I declare… is it an emergency or an Emergency?

Iced trees (c) Bigstock Photo

This is a long entry that discusses a number of questions.  Feel free to skip ahead.

Five days after a major ice storm hobbled North America’s fourth largest city with a power outage that plunged about 750, 000 people (300, 000 customers) into icy darkness, many people in Toronto are wondering why neither the Mayor nor the Premier has formally declared an Emergency.

Should one have been declared?  Let’s look at some facts.

An “emergency” is not a “Declaration of Emergency”

An “Emergency” and a “Declaration of Emergency” are not the same thing.

An “emergency” is:

“a serious, unexpected and potentially dangerous situation requiring immediate action.”

–      Oxford English Dictionary


“a situation or an impending situation that constitutes a danger of major proportions that could result in serious harm to persons or substantial damage to property and that is caused by the forces of nature, a disease or other health risk, an accident or an act whether intentional or otherwise.”

– Emergency Management & Civil Protection Act R.S.O. 1990, Chapter E.9

The widespread power outage in harsh winter conditions is clearly an emergency and it requires immediate action.  To deal with emergencies, the City of Toronto has a number of emergency services including police, fire, paramedics, as well as 24/7 response capability from city utilities and Toronto Hydro, the city-owned electrical utility.  These agencies, and others, deal with emergencies – large and small – every day without a “Declaration of Emergency.”

A “Declaration of Emergency” is a specific legal term defined in Ontario law that enables the Head of Council in a municipality to assume the powers of Council.

“The head of council of a municipality may declare that an emergency exists in the municipality or in any part thereof and may take such action and make such orders as he or she considers necessary and are not contrary to law to implement the emergency plan of the municipality and to protect property and the health, safety and welfare of the inhabitants of the emergency area.

– Emergency Management & Civil Protection Act R.S.O. 1990, c. E.9, s. 4 (1).

Article VI of the Toronto Municipal Code says Council delegates, to the Mayor, its powers during a declared emergency, so that the Mayor may enact such bylaws as may be necessary to address the situation in a timely manner.  In December, City Council amended this section to delegate those powers instead to the Deputy Mayor.

The power to formally declare an emergency, however, remains with the Mayor because it is enshrined in provincial law, which is beyond the City Council’s purview to amend and the province has not changed the legislation.  There really is no need to change the legislation, though, because Article 7.0.1 (1) of the Emergency Management & Civil Protection Act also gives the Premier (or her cabinet) the power to formally declare an emergency in Toronto, should she believe it necessary.

In summary, then, either the Mayor or the Premier can formally declare an emergency to exist in all or part of Toronto.  Such a declaration would give the Deputy Mayor all the powers that City Council has – for a period of 30 days or until the Mayor or Premier declares the emergency has ended.

Three reasons to declare an emergency

1.    If you need the public to do something quickly that they are not already doing, won’t do voluntarily or won’t do quickly enough on a volunteer basis.  For example: evacuate an area, stay off the streets, remain in their homes, move their cars or close their businesses.

Toronto governs by enacting bylaws.  Normally, only City Council can do this.  But, a special meeting of Council requires 48 hours notice and debate on any matter will take the better part of a day.  Many by-law amendments also require statutory public notice and public hearings.  So, 72 hours is about as fast as Council can respond.

However, if an emergency is formally declared, the Deputy Mayor could immediately enact bylaws at the stroke of a pen.  He could, for example:  impose a curfew, order properties evacuated, force most businesses to close by adjusting hours of operation, etc.  He retains that power for 30 days or until the emergency is declared to have ended -- by the mayor.

2.    If you need to waive or change a bylaw to get something done before City Council can meet.  For example: to waive normal purchasing rules so you can quickly buy emergency suppliers, eliminate a no-parking prohibition on certain streets or change the permitted use of a park, building or area.

Again, if an emergency is formally declared, the Deputy Mayor, acting as Council, could amend, waive or rescind purchasing rules, parking regulations, permitted land uses, etc

3.    If a formal declaration is required by another government in order to access additional resources.

The provincial or federal government could require a formal declaration of emergency before offering their help.  However, in most cases, they do not.  In this case, the Premier has already publicly stated the province will provide whatever assistance is requested, whether an emergency has been declared or not.

Six Myths about Declaring an Emergency

Myth:  It would get the power grid repaired faster.

Reality:  Unlikely.  What’s really required in Toronto are more forestry and electrical line crews.  All those in the city are engaged. Toronto Hydro has mutual aid agreements with utilities across North America that don’t require an emergency declaration to access additional help.

But, crews in neighboring areas were already fully engaged at home dealing with their own emergencies.  However, as they are finished in their areas, they are coming to Toronto.  The province has some forestry crews that it moved into Toronto even before the storm and they are already engaged. Bringing in crews from further afield is already happening, but it takes about 72 hours from time of request.  They have started arriving over the last 36 hours.

Myth: The Army could fix it.

Reality:  Not really.  The army has some specialized units that could provide some help – but the closest are in Petawawa.  And, they don’t have much equipment suitable for repairing lines in an urban environment.  Soldiers can provide general labour – they can be trained to use chainsaws and clear trees, for example – but they are not cheap.  There is lots of general labour available in Toronto already.

If there was widespread looting or a break down in law and order, the City could ask the province for additional policing help.  The province could, in turn, ask the Minister of National Defence to provide Canadian Forces to help police the city.  That deployment does not require a declararion of emergency, but it does require a written request from the Attorney General of Ontario. (National Defence Act – R.S.C., 1985, c. N-5 (Section 278)

There is, admittedly, a real value to having a uniformed presence in hard-hit communities and the military has the resources to flood an area with uniformed troops.  This is mostly a psychological benefit – but having troops in your neighborhood who can communicate with authorities could help facilitate emergency response.  Using highly trained soldiers for this, however, is the most expensive option.  Using Toronto Police, city staff or even Red Cross volunteers would be much, much cheaper and faster.

Myth:  The City would have to be shut down if an emergency is declared.

Reality:  Not true.  Emergencies are often declared when government needs to impose order or direct citizens to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do in a timely manner.  But that need not be the goal.  In Toronto’s case, the city is trying to get back on its feet – not to keep citizens off the roads or close businesses.

Myth:  People would panic if an emergency is declared.

Reality:  Unlikely.  However, tourists may avoid coming to the city and the cost of doing business in Toronto could possibly increase in future as analysts in future look at the “risks” of doing business here.

Myth:  The Deputy Mayor would take over if an Emergency is declared.

Reality:  Kinda sorta.  City Council amended the Municipal Code to delegate its powers to the Deputy Mayor, instead of the Mayor, in the event of an emergency.  So, the Deputy Mayor would be able to act with Council's powers -- which are extensive, but not infinite.  He would be able to enact, amend and repeal by-laws.  He would not become the CEO of the City of Toronto or the Head of Council, which are the Mayor's role as enshrined in provincial law.

Myth:  Mayor Rob Ford refused to declare an emergency for political reasons.

Reality:  I don't know.  My sources tell me senior City staff asked him on  Sunday afternoon to declare an emergency because they felt it would expedite the receipt of assistance from the province.  He refused, because he didn't feel it was necessary.  The Premier corroborated this when she said the province would provide any help required, with or without a declaration.  She also has the power to declare an emergency and has not done so.  Neither has any other affected municipality in Ontario.  That said, is there politics afoot?  Who knows.

Why I know what I know

For what it’s worth, I spent 14 years as an army officer and my last posting was as the staff officer responsible for coordinating military support to, among other things, Toronto and Ontario when they called for help.  After I left the army, I spent 12 years working internationally helping corporations plan for, survive through, and recover from major crises.  Most recently, I was Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Toronto – in which capacity I represented him to the City’s Emergency Management Planning Committee and where I guided him through two traumatic, sensational shootings and the crippling of Toronto’s Union Station, the nation’s busiest transportation hub, by flooding.


  1. Interesting stuff. However, you didn’t touch on Toronto’s Emergency Plan which has a number of provisions for planning and execution of emergency related situation including volunteer management, donor management, debris mgmt, etc.
    Can you tell your readers if this is the plan the city is working from? Was the official Emergency Committee convented? Is the city winging it? Does an emergency have to be declared for the plan to be invoked? If it has been invoked, then why is the Mayor begging the public for supplies for the warming centres? Shouldn’t that be the city’s responsibility? Couldn’t volunteers have been used to go door to door in apartments or even houses to check on people and make sure they have all the information they needed? Or supply them with batteries? These things don’t seem to be happening which makes me wonder if the plan was invoked.

    • As far as I know, the Toronto Emergency Planning Committee (TEMPC), which is now chaired by the Deputy Mayor, is involved and the city’s emergency plan is being followed. I don’t know why there was a public call for food donations. The Mayor is unlikely to have made that request on his own initiative, it likely came from City staff or the Red Cross who are helping to run the centres. The City could buy supplies, but there is an enormous appetite to help out during these kinds of emergencies. If you recall, the first public communication about food in reception centres was “please don’t bring homemade food — bring commercially prepared food.” I suspect people were dropping off food unsolicited. Giving the public something to do to help – i.e. “please donate non perishable food” fills the need for people to help out, and the food can be used in the centres — or by food banks. I don’t know if that was the thought process, but it could reasonably have been.

      Volunteers can be used, but the large scale use of volunteers is not easy. First, they must be trained. Second, they must be managed and led. Finally, they must be insured. The Canadian Red Cross (CRC) can provide all of the above. That’s one of the reasons I facilitated a discussion between CRC and City emergency management officials to bring the CRC into the City’s plan when I was Chief of Staff in the Mayor’s Office. One of the benefits of declaring an emergency is that it makes it easier to protect volunteers with Workplace Safety Insurance Board coverage.

      CRC also has the ability to mobilize and manage a large number of volunteers during an emergency. CRC can also raise funds to offset costs for consumable and comfort items needed by victims, etc. – something the City cannot do.

  2. This is a great post, Mark. I was debating this issue with someone the other day. Was trying to figure out whether or not it made sense to call it. Keep up the good work.

Comments are closed.