Battling the beast

Fort McMurray fire chief lauded for level-headed leadership

Battling the beast
Darby Allen

On May 3, 2016, “the beast” ran through Fort McMurray, Alta. It destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings, nearly 10 per cent of the town. More than 85,000 residents were required to leave their homes, making it one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history. 

The man at the helm of it all was Darby Allen, regional fire chief of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, who entered into a well-deserved retirement in February.

He became the face of the wildfire, providing status updates on TV and online with calm reassurance. Widely celebrated as a national hero, Allen was the leader that the town, province and heavy-hearted on-lookers from Canada and around the world needed in a time of immense distress.

“The people here are devastated. Everyone is devastated… This is going to go on; this will take us a while to come back from, but we will come back,” Allen told the CBC on May 4, 2016, the second day the fire ripped through Fort McMurray.

Reports by consultants KPMG and MNP were very critical of the response to the wildfire, citing communication breakdowns between municipal and provincial officials and mixed messages to the public about the threat and proximity of the fire. With the shifting winds and the complexity of the fire, Allen and his team were forced to make important decisions very quickly.

One such decision was to split the evacuees, sending 25,000 people north and 60,000 south.

“If we hadn’t have done that, then we would have had more problems getting everyone out of town because of the congestion on the roads. The roads were already congested, it was already tight, and I do feel there was certainly more potential for people being trapped and injured in their vehicles on the road if we hadn’t of split that up,” he says.

Allen is also pleased with the way his team communicated to the public throughout the crisis — social media was the primary method.  

“Everyone has a phone now. It was a bit of a no-brainer, really. First of all, you don’t have a lot of time. You need to get information out quickly to a lot of people, so you’re not going to phone around to every business, every school and every house; that’s impossible,” he says. “We knew if we got into radio stations and TV stations and we got it on Facebook and Twitter, we would get most of the people, if not 95 per cent.”

All media releases were issued through social media. In the evenings, Allen regularly appeared in 30-second videos posted to Twitter to provide updates.

“Any type of project you do, communication is always key, but in this one, it was obviously vital,” he says. “I don’t know of any better way we could have done it.”

Allen’s ability to stay level-headed under pressure was highly regarded throughout the evacuation. He credits his being a firefighter for 29 years as keeping him calm in stressful situations. One of the things he is the most proud of is how he and his leadership team treated the workers (up to 100 individuals) in the Regional Emergency Operations Centre throughout the evacuation.

“We never, ever raised our voice; we never shouted at anybody; we never lost it, as they say, under pretty stressful conditions. I am really proud of that.”

Although he has witnessed countless stressful situations as a firefighter, this was the largest event Allen had ever seen and there were some emotional moments. He would sometimes get choked up when he was appearing on camera and when having difficult, personal conversations with his staff. For example, on the big day of the evacuation, a worker whose house was about to burn down came to Allen and said he had to go home to rescue his dog.

“I said to him, ‘I know this is hard for you and I know what you want to do but you can’t do that and there’s two reasons for that. First of all, the traffic is so bad you’ll never get there and even if you get there, you won’t be able to do anything. And secondly, I really need you to stay here and do your job because there is no one else to do your job right now.’ And we both had a little cry and he stayed and he lost his home and he lost his dog. It’s terrible but he is still a good friend of mine and sometimes you just have to make difficult decisions,” Allen says.


Allen’s crisis management advice

Navigating the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history makes Allen a bit of a crisis management expert. He now travels across Canada sharing his story of the Alberta wildfire and speaking on trust, leadership and teamwork. As a first step, he says all organizations need to conduct a risk analysis to determine their biggest risk. These risks could be flood, fire, terrorist threat, hurricane, earthquake or cyber hacking, says Allen.

“Everybody is different. McMurray’s biggest risk was obviously you’re surrounded by trees and you could have a wildfire. But what was the likelihood of that happening? Pretty remote but it was still a risk,” he says.

Once the risks are identified, a crisis management plan needs to be put in place. A key component of this plan is personnel. Allen says it’s “vitally important” to discuss these plans with the individuals involved and to go beyond simply outlining their duties.

“We have never sat down with them and said ‘How do you feel about that? How do you feel if we are evacuating the whole town, we are going to leave you in a room in that town to take care of things for us? How do you feel about that?’ Is he the right person to do that? Is he mentally the right person to do that?”

When in a crisis management leadership role, leaders need to act fast. Allen often only had five or 10 minutes to talk with his team and make a decision.

“What areas do we need to go? Who needs to go first? What’s the timing with respect to how much traffic is on the roads? Where are we going to put them? All those things are going on quickly and with really not a lot of time to think about it,” he says. “You need think about what you think is the best possible scenario, what’s the best possible answer and decision you can come to and go with it… Make the decision right now, otherwise it’s too late. It’s happening that quick.”

Allen’s other tips for leaders include listening to all the information that comes in, not getting too happy when things go well or too down when things go wrong and being “completely and utterly supportive” of your employees.

“Telling them they are doing an incredibly wonderful job on a regular basis. I don’t mean once a day; I mean walking around and tapping them on the shoulder every hour is good, it’s not over the top,” Allen says. “When you are in a real crisis and people are falling apart, they need somebody to tell them it’s all going to be okay and they are doing a good job.”

It’s important all workers understand their job makes a difference in getting through the emergency — no matter what the task. Allen relates it to a large jigsaw puzzle.

“If we get to the end of this day and one of the pieces is missing, it doesn’t matter if you’re the king of England or the person who is responsible for cleaning the bathroom, the piece is still missing, so the puzzle is not complete, and our job is to compete this puzzle,” Allen recalls saying to his team when the evacuation began.

Allen says he would be lying if he didn’t admit the wildfire pushed him to retire slightly earlier than planned. Him and his wife have now settled into a condo in the heart of downtown Vancouver and they love the new lifestyle.

“We walk every day and we go and sit on a bench by the ocean. We sit there and we just realize how lucky and how blessed we are,” he says. “And we might have a beer along the way.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of COS.