New Westminster fire chief Tim Armstrong believes there's a vast difference between reading about emergency response and seeing it firsthand.
That's why Armstrong is working on plans for sending a city delegation to the East Coast of the United States that was devastated by superstorm Sandy in November. In November 2012, city council approved a motion to send a delegation of the city's emergency operations centre representatives to New York and New Jersey to evaluate on-ground, post-disaster efforts, where they'll focus on federal emergency agencies reconstruction centres, business restoration and startup, school relocation programs and electric services delivery.
"We have been gathering information about the areas that have been hardest hit," Armstrong said. "We are going to start reaching out to some people in February."
Armstrong will make connections with people in communities that the delegation hopes to visit.
"We are not going to go there blind and wander around," he said. "We are going to have specific targeted areas to go and speak to people."
Armstrong is consulting with other city directors to determine who will be part of the delegation. Once they head back east, they'll likely meet with school employees, and engineering and utility employees and others who are critical to infrastructure, as well as members of the business community.
"It's at a point right now where they are in recovery mode. They are not in the emergency response phase," he said. "That (recovery mode) is where a lot of challenges come up."
Armstrong anticipates that the delegation will head back east in mid March. Because the hard-hit areas will still be in recovery mode, he said local officials will be in a position to learn from the challenges they've faced.
"That's the whole idea behind it is to talk firsthand with people," he said.
Before heading back east, Armstrong will report back to council about an itinerary and participants in the delegation. Staff in police, engineering, electrical departments, as well as representatives from the school district, have been suggested as potential members of the delegation.
Armstrong, who was hired as New Westminster's fire chief in 2009, previously worked for the Vancouver Fire Department for 28 years where he was involved in disaster response and emergency planning initiatives. He was part of teams that went to New York City after 9-11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Leading search and rescue missions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina made a last impact on Armstrong. Based on those experiences, he recently proposed a motion to the region's fire chiefs association that was approved.
"The Greater Vancouver Fire Chiefs Association is going to pay to have the fire chief from New Orleans come up. That is the chief I dealt with when I went down there to hurricane Katrina," he said. "He is seven years into it. He has 100 per cent turnover in staff."
According to Armstrong, the New Orleans fire chief has seen his department shrink in size and witnessed the devastating impacts on the community and his department.
"Seven years later, every third home is still vacant, every second house is in foreclosure or not paying their taxes," he said. "Most of the industry is gone."
Armstrong noted that New Orleans and New Westminster are both located on working rivers.
"The reason we are bringing him up is to hear it firsthand from someone who has lived it for seven years."
In addition to ensuring the City of New Westminster is prepared to handle a disaster, Armstrong wants to help businesses plan for a potential emergency situation. He's spoken to members of the Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Association and the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce about the possibility of taking part in the delegation, and also questioned them about their ability to ensure businesses have a plan in place to continue operating following a disaster, whether it's a flood, fire or earthquake.
"Those are the kinds of things I want in businesses minds - not to panic or anything, but what if?" he said.