Former Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen addresses the 2018 MISA Prairies conference in Red Deer, Alberta on May 8, 2018.

Published: May 9th, 2018

RED DEER, Alta. – As a public services veteran, Darby Allen admits he was never a fan of social media and the arguments he occasionally read on it.

But when Fort McMurray’s former fire chief, who found himself leading the crisis response team during the 2016 wildfire that ultimately destroyed around 15 per cent of the municipality’s homes and buildings, faced the task of notifying residents they needed to leave – fast – it turned out to be a godsend.

“It was the first large-scale evacuation that was led by social media,” Allen told attendees at the 2018 Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA) Prairies conference in Red Deer, Alta. “And I’ll be honest with you – as fire chief, I was never a fan of social media… but we talked early on about how we were going to notify everybody, and a young man in communications, Jordan Redshaw, said ‘we can do it on social media.’ … And it worked.”

Redshaw’s idea – to harness the municipality’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, the latter of which Allen estimates sent out 3200 tweets during the disaster – spread the message faster than Allen could have imagined.

While the fire – which started burning on May 1, 2016, reached Fort McMurray on May 3, and wasn’t declared under control until July 5 – ultimately caused $9.9 billion worth of damage, making it the costliest disaster in Canadian history, there were no human fatalities.

“Our theory was that if you didn’t have a phone, you’d know someone who does, and the message spread quickly,” Allen said.

‘People are important’ and other leadership lessons forged in fire

During his keynote, Allen shared other insights he learned while placed in his unenviable position.

“I’ll be honest – I don’t profess to know a lot about leadership, but I know that people are important,” he said.

On May 3, 2016, the morning a mandatory evacuation was eventually ordered, Allen told his approximately 50-person team, “You’re in for the most challenging day of your entire life.”

“It’s going to be hard,” he recalled saying. “I don’t know what the outcome is going to be in the end. But I know that we all have to do the little things well. I know that we all have to do our jobs to the best of our ability, and if one or two of us don’t, it’s not going to work.”

And those jobs, he reminded them, weren’t limited to emergency response – the smallest action could make a difference.

“I said, ‘if you have to send one email… make sure it’s got a subject line, make sure you’re happy with the content, make sure it’s going to the person you want it to go to,'” he said. “‘It might be the most important email of your life.'”

“If you are asked to change the bathroom tissue, don’t think of it as a menial task. We need to live in clean and hygienic conditions, and someone has to do it. If I have time, I’ll do it.”

“And if you go to the coffee pot at three o’clock in the morning because you need a pep up, and you pour out the last cup, make another pot of coffee,” he said. “In normal day-to-day society it kind of ticks you off a little bit when there isn’t more coffee. During crisis management, you go freaking ballistic.”

Allen’s own experience with ‘the little things’

Allen, who retired last March, finished his keynote with an anecdote illustrating his own experience with the value of “the little things” – a photo of a Tim Hortons coffee cup with the words “Our hero” written on the top, that he purchased on the first day Tim Hortons reopened in Fort McMurray.

The cup in question.

“I don’t show you this cup because I think I’m worthy of that word, because I sincerely doubt it,” he said. “I show you this cup for the young lady that gave it to me.”

Tim Hortons, Allen explained, was among the priority facilities, alongside gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores, and hospitals, that the city focused on reopening between June 1 and June 15, 2016, when residents were slowly invited back to the city.

“You have to make sure there are some facilities for them to use,” Allen explained. “So this young lady had been evacuated four weeks before. She was terrified. She didn’t want to come back… but she came back, and that first day open it was the busiest day of her entire life. And I was one of those people in that lineup, which stretched from here to Kentucky.”

Multiple residents offered Allen their place in line and to pay for his coffee, but he refused, assuring them he was happy to “chill out” for two hours.

“So I get to the front and order my medium regular, and she gives me the cup, and I go to pay, and she won’t take my money. So I put it into the charity box,” he said. “I didn’t see the lid until I walked outside, into the car park, and pulled up my cup.”

“And I broke down – in the parking lot, in the Fort McMurray Tim Hortons,” he continued. “I felt as if the whole thing had come to that moment, and it all kind of flooded out. People were coming up to me; I think they thought I was having a heart attack. So I said no thank you, but I went back in, behind the counter, and gave her a big hug, and told her I loved it.”

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