HR, benefits lessons from the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire

Business continuity planning is integral to being ready to react in an emergency, but few companies find themselves having to deal with a situation on the scale of the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta.

At Benefits Canada‘s Calgary Benefits Summit on Tuesday, Jay Falcone, senior leader for pension and benefits at Syncrude Canada Ltd., told the story of his experience with the wildfire from a human resources perspective. The May 2016 disaster affected the company in many ways. Not only did the entire city evacuate, officials initially told residents to go north of Fort McMurray, which meant people were showing up on the doorsteps of oilsands facilities like Syncrude’s. As a result, it had to resurrect a camp facility to house people.

“It was quite a feat to actually house those individuals for that period of time,” said Falcone, who noted people showed up with their pets as well.

“One person even brought a horse,” he told attendees at the Fairmont Palliser hotel in Calgary.

Read: What is the role of benefits programs in supporting Fort McMurray victims?

The wildfire meant shutting down Syncrude’s plant operations for the first time in its history. Of the 2,500 homes destroyed in the fire, 600 belonged to Syncrude employees, according to Falcone.

From a human resources perspective, safety was the first priority, said Falcone. After that, the company sought to ensure employees’ financial well-being. In Syncrude’s case, that meant reassuring employees about their job security, providing for salary continuance to workers who had scattered across the province and elsewhere and ensuring access to both health and ancillary benefits.

For Syncrude, it was important to live up to the company’s messages that it takes care of its workers, said Falcone. “You’re either going to confirm what you’ve been saying all of these years or you’re going to create a negative memory,” he told the conference.

When it came to financial matters, the company gave each worker a special payment of $2,500, which Falcone said was essentially an advance on employees’ bonuses for the following year, in order to help with the various costs they were facing. For health benefits, it sought to relax the rules around drug claims to ensure people could fill their prescriptions elsewhere. On the subject of ancillary benefits. it found a service provider that could help with some of the difficult situations employees now found themselves in, such as dealing with insurance claims and builders.

Read: Alberta pension regulator extends filing deadline for Fort McMurray plans

“I kind of realized that nobody provides that,” said Falcone of his efforts to contact other communities that had dealt with major disasters, such as Calgary during its 2013 floods, to see how they had dealt with such issues. In its case, Syncrude offered workers 10 hours of consultation.

As with many human resources issues, communication was key. In Syncrude’s case, company representatives called all employees to check on how they were doing. It also published bulletins and provided information via Twitter. The communication issue provided one of the key lessons Falcone offered up from the experience: ensure employees keep their contact information updated so the company can reach them.

Other key lessons included the importance of mobilizing human resources staff. In Syncrude’s case, that meant finding a place to quickly set up a human resources office in Edmonton. Falcone noted the situation offered the human resources department a chance to prove its strategic value. For Syncrude, staff demonstrated that by contacting retirees who had been at the company from the start in order to leverage their expertise around the extraordinary situation of having to restart a plant.

Read: Should employers offer a climate-related leave policy?

“You just don’t do that at the drop of a hat,” said Falcone of the challenges of shutting the plant down.

“We did it in 24 hours.”