Emergency Planning: Ready … or Not?

A flood of advice for coping with a crisis

By Geoff Geddes

“Out of sight, out of mind” can be a sound philosophy, until it isn’t. Pork producers may do everything else right, but if they’re unprepared when a crisis hits, it can all go wrong in a heartbeat. That fact is not lost on pork organizations across the country, and is prompting a renewed call for emergency planning and everything that it entails.

In Ontario, that planning began in 2017, when Ontario Pork aided producers in gathering information on key contacts and how to respond in the event of an emergency on farm.

This year, Ontario Pork is teaming up with Swine Health Ontario (SHO) and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) in facilitating producer plans with the aid of four students over the summer.

“Farm emergencies can take many forms, such as fires, tornadoes, chemical spills, foreign animal disease (FAD) and barns collapsing from snow,” says Frank Wood, manager of Industry and Member Services with Ontario Pork. “When we enter the farm and try to get basic information to help them, they are in panic mode. Then there was one farm where a worker had lost a finger and told 911 he was at ‘the red barn’, but nobody knew the address!”

Overview of farm house and barn layout
    Jonathan Bielaski photo

Your little black book

To enhance preparedness, Ontario Pork originally focused on gathering key contact details in one place for each farm, along with the physical location to advise emergency services. From there, they expanded to address incidents of activism and encouraged candid conversations between producers and their bankers and insurers.

“The collaboration with SHO and OMAFRA centers on preparing for a FAD,” says Wood. “If mass euthanasia is required, how can we ensure it is done humanely and that carcasses are disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner?”

That is where the students come in, downloading aerial maps of farms and examining aspects like soil composition and zoning restrictions.

“In Ontario, all of this information is publicly available, but it’s time consuming for producers to gather it all,” says Jessica Fox, SHO manager. “In the event of disease outbreak, you can’t just dig a big hole in the ground and be done with it. We are helping farmers to do proper setbacks for burials and account for the impact of various soil types.”

In a large farm system with 20 sites, each one will be a bit different depending on a number of factors: Is there a creek running in the back? Is the farm tiled? How close is it to the nearest town? Where are wells and drains located on the property?

Regardless of the catastrophe, there are numerous questions to address, but the effort is worthwhile for producers across the country.

“Although these incidents are rare, they can be devastating to both humans and animals if not managed properly,” says Mark Fynn, manager, Quality Assurance and Animal Care for Manitoba Pork. “It’s vital to have contingency plans in place so you can maximize safety and maintain animal welfare.”

Failure is not an option

As Fynn explains, emergency plans are important enough to be included as a requirement in national quality assurance programs for Canadian pork producers. Given the challenges to Manitoba’s hog sector this year, proper preparation is not a luxury item.

“We have experienced unprecedented weather events in 2022, leading to massive overland flooding and power outages,” says Fynn. “Fortunately, when Manitoba Hydro goes down, producers have backup generators to maintain power to the barns, and that is just one example of planning that preserved animal care.”

The Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) project, a industry-led initiative, works with partners across the country to lessen the damage from livestock disease.

“Our primary goal is to strengthen emergency preparedness through increased awareness, building capacity and boosting confidence in the face of disease outbreaks on farm,” says Todd Bergen-Henengouwen, resource development lead with AHEM in Lethbridge, Alta.

Though floods and fires have grabbed the headlines on the Prairies and in B.C. in recent years, the impact of FAD on the livestock sector would be significant, sparking processor slowdowns or shutdowns and leading to surplus issues on-farm.

“The main concern with FAD is that timelines are short in the pork business, and that can be a serious challenge for producers,” says Bergen-Henengouwen. “We can’t create a perfect plan that addresses every situation, but having something prepared in advance is very important.”

Pigs standing in barn
    Ontario Pork photo

On animalhealth.ca, visitors can download a producer handbook template for dealing with FAD. It is divided into three sections: understanding, preparing and responding.

“We start with understanding what all is involved in a disease outbreak,” says Bergen-Henengouwen. “In the preparation segment, it’s about what we can physically do on farm to limit the danger, such as maintaining proper biosecurity and focusing on early detection of disease. You should also be reviewing your insurance coverage to see what is included and up to what level you are covered. How much risk are you taking on, and could there be alternative sources of insurance to fill any gaps in your current coverage?”

Finally, the responding portion includes whom to contact and when, as immediate action can help to mitigate the damage.

Insuring success

Just as proper insurance is a key part of emergency management, the plan itself helps to ensure peace of mind.

“I look at emergency planning as another insurance policy,” says Tanya Terpstra, who runs a 2,100 sow farrow-to-finish operation with her family just north of Stratford, Ont. “In the event of disaster, we at least have a base level of preparedness. Putting all the calls we need to make and the key contacts in one binder, and making everyone aware of it, can help us start the response process without being flustered or overwhelmed with a thousand things we need to do.”

On-Farm Emergency Response Planning Guide
    Putting crucial information in a binder can help response time in a crisis. - Ontario Pork photo

Since farming is far from a 9-5 job, Terpstra feels you must examine all aspects of your operation.

“When unforeseen problems occur, you are not just dealing with a business in crisis, but a family in crisis as well,” says Terpstra. “You need information assembled that lets you protect both business and family. As well, in the immediate aftermath of an FAD, people will be making some decisions for you, and you must be equipped to be a partner at those critical moments.”

Whether it’s a farm-specific event like a fire or roof collapse, another form of business interruption, or an industry-wide catastrophe, it always helps to anticipate the questions before they arise.

“Maybe it’s the flu going through your barn, but what do you do next?” says Terpstra. “How can you limit your losses? What happens if they have to re-route feed trucks during an outbreak? Are you prepared to alter the diets of your pigs accordingly? When it’s a widespread disaster, you must be able to change and shift as the industry requires.”

As with many plans in life, the devil is in the detail, and no point is too small to address.

Getting it together

“For us, I realized that just making sure we have a meeting point for staff is critical, as is having a landline at that location in case someone doesn’t have their cell phone on them,” says Terpstra. “Everyone must know where to gather in an emergency, who will make the phone calls, and who should be called first. Our workers have been instructed to call us first, and they know what number to try next if they can’t reach us for some reason.”

Terpstra’s plan also includes contact information for the nearest neighbour, and whether they have a tractor or loader that could be used to move something out of the way if needed. If an ambulance has to be called, her children know that it doesn’t end there; they also have to send someone to the end of the farm lane to flag down help when it arrives.

Like others in the industry, Terpstra also places great value on insurance as part of the planning process.

“One thing I have learned is that when faced with an emergency, it's critical to really understand your policies,” says Terpstra. “We all assume that we are covered for everything, but that’s not always the case. You want to check on whether the cleanup and disposal of dead stock is included, and if you are covered for business interruption.”

The length of coverage for disruption of your business is also a key element. Producers who lose a sow barn won’t be up and running and generating income in a year, so it pays to look closely at the fine print.

“We thought we were well covered,” says Terpstra. “When we reviewed the policy, however, we realized that the drastic change in hog prices of late had left us underinsured, so that was a real eye-opener.”

Though emergency planning is not a quick or easy process, it is a vital one.

“The effort we have expended on preparedness is probably the most work we have ever done for something you may never use,” says Wood. “At the same time, if a plan is needed down the road, you’ll be very glad you have one.” BP

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