Who’s in charge of making sure we’re ready for a disaster?
“Jan. 24, 2010,” he says simply. That’s his answer to why he does what he does. That was the day the earthquake hit Port-Au-Prince. Haiti, he tells me, is where his mom was born and raised. He starts rattling off facts about the history of Haiti like it’s his homeland. He pauses for a second, realizing that’s not really what I’m here to talk about.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’ve kinda gone off a bit, but I’ve always just had that connection with it. It was just always there in the background when I was growing up. It was the topic of conversation; it was the news my mom was looking for. It was always, ‘what’s going on in Haiti?’ My grandfather was a pastor there and he formed a church there, and I’ve always just had a really tight connection with it.”
And so, after business school didn’t work out for him – a long story not exactly relevant to this particular tale – Shaun Koopman was in the waiting area about to board a plane to Australia to bum around a bit, do some surfing, and “find himself,” when he heard the news that Haiti had been rocked by a 7.2 earthquake.
“I remember getting on that flight, and being on that plane for 16 or 18 hours and knowing that there’s no building codes, there’s millions of poor, it’s urban slum – it’s one of the worst possible places that could happen. I mean, there are already landslides happening all around it. And I knew this would mean millions of people displaced. This is probably over 100,000 dead. And was I just overwhelmed by helplessness.”
And it nagged at him the whole time he was in Australia. So when he came back to Canada he knew what he wanted to do. Or rather, he knew what he didn’t want. He didn’t want to ever feel that helpless again. So he went and got a degree in geography, using that to leverage his way into a master’s degree in disaster management, which is actually something he didn’t know existed.
“We’re a very new discipline,” he says. “I honestly didn’t know this was something that someone could do as a career.” He actually found out it was something he could do because he’s kind of a geek. “I’m a comic book fan,” he says. “And I found out that they shot X-Men at Royal Roads, and a friend of mine said, ‘you should check out that school. It actually looks like they have some cool programs.’” So he got a master’s degree in being prepared for an emergency. That can’t be all it takes to be qualified to lead our region’s response team, can it?
Well, he’s also got certifications in emergency social services, incident command systems, and emergency operations centres. He’s recruited and supervised staff and volunteers through roles with the Dan Sharrers Aquatic Centre, École Ebenezer in the Dominican Republic, and the Canadian Cancer Society. When you add those roles to his seven years of experience teaching first responder training programs and presenting information campaigns to the public as a Canadian Red Cross first aid instructor and lifesaving society instructor mentor, assisting healthcare workers, teaching first responder skills, developing emergency management promotional materials and creating an interactive hazard analysis map for the 1500 households in the Janta Colony slum in Chandigarh, India, you start to get a picture of what this guy is about.
He basically lives emergency preparedness and disaster response. And when you live for emergency preparedness, you naturally also live for information.
“I’m a huge fan of data,” Koopman says. “That’s one of the things this field has been missing, I think. Incorporating the lessons learned and the data and what we’ve taken from past events and what other people are working on and what did and didn’t work in various circumstances and sharing that knowledge and make it available for everyone.”
“Data influences your opinion and so the better data you have, the better decisions you’re going to make.”
To that end, Koopman spends some of his free time as an editorial assistant and writer for Haznet Magazine, an online magazine about emergency management and disaster response. It’s the only one of its kind in Canada, Koopman says. He and the rest of the Haznet team publish twice a year, and each edition focuses on different themes, whether it’s a specific event – like one last year that focused on High River Alberta and how they responded and recovered from severe flooding in 2013 and the lessons learned from that event or the ways Aboriginal communities participate (and are often the first responders) in severe emergencies.
“So what we’re trying to do is take all that knowledge and put it in one spot.” And to take that idea one step further, he’s also working with a team of organizers and managers across the nation to create Canada’s first Resilience Index, which would be a huge data bank of emergency information available to anyone with a computer.
“There’s a commodification of knowledge,” Koopman admits, “and I think that’s a problem. If you want to download a university article, and you’re not a member of that university with a certain level of access to those things, it’s going to cost you $30 or something. So what we’ve been doing is reaching out to researchers and getting permissions to have their research to compile it into a database of who is doing what.”
But enough about side projects and previous experience. Just what is Koopman doing in his current day-to-day capacity as emergency services coordinator to keep our region safe? Well, there’s no typical day in the life of an emergency response coordinator, but the short answer would be “a lot.”
While he says he’s only in the office “about 50 per cent of the time,” and that time is spent mainly performing various “administrative duties” like budgeting and other paperwork. The rest of his time is spent balancing that administrative work with putting on outreach and educational programs, presenting things to various boards, councils and committees, traveling to various areas of the region to work with emergency responders and doing information sessions with private businesses or non-profit organizations who want to learn more about how to be prepared.
“I like the outreach aspect of what I do, especially here in Campbell River, because it’s really not that big,” he says. “Very rarely do I go somewhere where there’s not someone who wants to talk to me about this stuff. It doesn’t take long for your name to get around in a community like this and have people start engaging with you.”
Between the educational sessions, committee meetings and outreach programs, Koopman says he also meets with all of the emergency response planners on the Island outside the capital region get together for planning sessions about every other month, “to look at the Island as a whole, which is really beneficial. If you’re looking at emergency planning, we need to know that you’re all looking at give or take the same binders and the same forms and that the communication systems are all in place in the event of a major earthquake, for example, because an event like that doesn’t really involve different players depending on where you’re at. The only things that really change from region to region are things like facilities – reception centres and group lodging, that kind of thing – and the contact info.”
Another project he’s been working on is collaborating with the Immigrant Welcome Centre, which will see him get the emergency response material given out to the public translated into the variety of different languages present in households within our community.
And as much as he likes his job, overall, the best part, he says, is that from day to day, hour to hour, it’s always different.
“I learn something every day,” Koopman says. “There’s a lot to learn in this job, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully have everything. Making mistakes is important. You learn more from mistakes than you do from successes, so I like making mistakes and hitting things from a different angle and making them work, because that means I’m learning.”
“It’s also interesting to me just how regional and cultural specific emergency planning is,” he continues. “I mean, I help Campbell River plan and I help Tahsis plan, and it is two totally different scenarios, so I’ve come to realize just how important it is to be adaptable and flexible.”
For more on what the Strathcona Regional District is doing in terms of emergency preparedness, follow them on Twitter (@SEP_EPC), like them on Facebook (just search “Strathcona Emergency Program”) or go online to strathconard.ca and look for “Protective Services/Emergency Program” under the “Services” tab.
If you’re interested in having Koopman into your organization or business to do an emergency preparation session, contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org