On May 1, 2016, the Wood Buffalo RCMP detachment was bracing for a disaster. Two massive forest fires burning north and south of Fort McMurray, Alta. were slowly creeping towards the city.
Supt. Lorna Dicks, the acting detachment commander at the time, knew how quickly wildfires could spread, and she wasn't taking any chances. Based on the latest updates, an additional 10 police officers from the detachment were called out to work overtime on every shift, 24-7, in the neighbourhoods closest to the fires.
"Calling officers in, getting them suited up and ready to be deployed would take 45 minutes, whereas having those extra members already there, it's only a couple-minute response," says Dicks. "We wanted to have extra boots on the ground so that in the event of an evacuation, we could get people out as fast as we could."
The detachment activated its emergency operations centre — a boardroom turned operational hub — and stationed an RCMP officer in the Regional Emergency Operations Centre (REOC) to relay information about the fire to the detachment.
Over the next few days, the Wood Buffalo detachment, which serves Fort McMurray, worked on high alert, with their eyes on the approaching clouds of smoke. It wasn't until 2 p.m. on May 3 that the fire became out of control. The REOC declared a citywide evacuation, and the RCMP started the work of getting people out safely.
Dicks immediately called out all 136 RCMP officers in the detachment on mandatory overtime.
"When they responded to the call, they left their homes behind," says Dicks. "They didn't even have a chance to go back and pick up anything. They gave up everything they had to get the public out."
A month before the massive wildfire swept through Fort McMurray, the Wood Buffalo detachment went through a preparatory exercise for exactly that disaster. The detachment made a contingency plan outlining what would happen if a fire destroyed one of the two detachment buildings in the city.
Supt. Rob McCloy, detachment commander at the time, wanted to make sure police operations wouldn't deteriorate if they lost one of the police buildings and the resources within it.
"We made sure all equipment was doubled up and all procedures were put on paper so everyone would understand what to do," says McCloy. "It was to preserve operations."
The detachment also cut a third set of keys for each police car and made sure both buildings had a key for each car in the fleet. This would ensure the RCMP wouldn't lose the opportunity to use the cars if they lost the building.
"It's kind of scary that we thought about it just weeks beforehand. I never expected it to become reality so soon," says McCloy. "But, we didn't plan for both buildings to go. You can't plan for that sort of thing."
All hands on deck
After Dicks made the mandatory overtime call-out to all local RCMP officers, she stationed several experienced officers in the detachment's emergency operations centre. There, they co-ordinated resources and sent out communications to all officers on the ground. They also connected with the regional and district emergency operations centers to get regular updates on the fires.
Although Fort McMurray has experienced natural disasters such as floods and fires in the past, it was never to this extent. Insp. Mark Hancock, the incident commander that day who was stationed in REOC, says everyone took on roles and did the best they could.
"We had those systems set in place so as soon as members were called in, we were giving them cars and telling them where to go. It was one community after another," says Hancock, describing the evacuation. "The training we had really created some semblance of order in this situation."
But, the detachment still ran out of cars and radios — something that didn't surprise Dicks. The detachment isn't built to have an entire fleet of 136 police officers on duty at the same time.
"During the first day, there was little way to avoid the chaos," says Dicks. "You can't say, 'let's keep an extra 50 cars on hand in case the city burns down.' "
The detachment is now revamping its contingency plans to improve the delegation of resources during a citywide evacuation such as this one.
The clogged radio channels were another struggle for the RCMP that day. As the sole method of communication between the operations centre and officers on the ground, it was hard to get messages through.
"No matter how much you're talking to people, you're never talking enough," says Dicks. "We needed to provide updates to our boots on the ground quicker."
Dicks says the detachment is now looking at introducing a mass messaging system with all employee cellphone numbers and emails. That way, messages can be distributed to every single member, in real time, without having to wait for the radio lines to clear.
By 10 p.m. the night of May 3, the city was empty. The local RCMP, along with municipal law enforcement officers and firefighters, managed to evacuate all 88,000 residents of Fort McMurray in about six hours.
"When you see what all these people did in the field . . . it's unbelievable," says Hancock. "They were running and jumping over fences, knocking on doors, helping handicapped people out of houses — everyone has stories."
But the fires were still raging. Flames had surrounded the main RCMP detachment building, and Dicks made the call to evacuate her troops.
"When the smoke started pumping into the building, it was an easy decision to make," says Dicks, who has since become the detachment commander. "Having practised the detachment move, there was no confusion and no time for thinking twice."
Dicks evacuated the main building, moving police operations to the city's southern backup location.
"As much planning as we can do, you also have to be flexible and make decisions on the fly," says Dicks. "Nothing is ever going to go according to plan."
Within 24 hours of moving to the south Wood Buffalo RCMP facility, the detachment had to move again. The fires pushed the crew south, and they set up a temporary detachment in the hamlet of Anzac, 50 kilometres away. For many officers, it was their first chance to eat and rest in 36 hours.
Then, later that night, they were forced out by the fires again. The detachment moved posts five times in four days.
"I don't think there's any official training that can prepare you for that," says Dicks. "Hindsight is always going to be 20/20, it teaches you that we need to prepare even more for the next time."
On May 7, four days after the fires broke loose, all members of the Wood Buffalo detachment met in Edmonton where they were told to stand down and given two weeks off. More than 300 RCMP officers from across the country had arrived to relieve the exhausted officers.
McCloy and Alberta RCMP set up a reception centre to help organize the members. Hotels were arranged, financial services helped members who had lost their homes, and health services — including a team of psychologists — assessed each member's well-being.
The detachment also collected the personal emails and phone numbers of each employee to keep them updated during their time off. Their contact information will also be used to develop a communications plan for future emergencies, making the overtime call-out easier, and updates to members on the ground more frequent.
Before returning to work, all RCMP officers were assessed by a psychologist to make sure they were fit for duty.
"Officers were chomping at the bit to get back. My goal was to get them back into their regular rotations as soon as possible," says McCloy. "If they can get back to their schedule, they can get back to life."
Once the detachment was back in action, McCloy and Dicks held several debriefing sessions to get feedback from RCMP officers on the ground. Besides better communication, officers recommended having food stores within the buildings. Many worked in heavy smoke for 24 hours straight with little food and water. Now, both detachment buildings have stores of rations — enough to sustain all members for up to 72 hours. They're also getting a set of respiration masks for smoke in the event of another fire.
To date, most officers have returned to work, some have transferred detachments and some are still coping with the aftermath of the fires. The RCMP is currently in the process of recognizing the efforts of all RCMP employees who responded and provided support during the fires.
"Morale is really high here and it's a testament to members," says Hancock. "We're proactive, but we're also very good at reacting. No other organization could have done it better."