Management During Natural Disasters

From the Texas oil fields to the Alberta tar sands, the oil industry in North America is currently in crisis, leaving many workers unemployed, including many young workers with little education and no experience working outside the energy sector.

This week, in the midst of the oil industry’s already devastating downfall, one impacted community faced a challenge even greater than the industry’s collapse–a forest fire covering close to half a million acres that can’t be brought under control.


Since last weekend, a fire has been rapidly expanding in and around Fort McMurray, Alberta–a community of approximately 90,000 residents that built up quickly over the past decade as workers from around the world flocked to the town for high-paying jobs in the world’s largest oil patch outside Venezuela and Sauid Arabia. What began as a small forest fire that most residents felt would soon be brought under control, quickly spread wiping out entire sections of the town and forcing some residents to flee their homes with only minutes warning. Now nearly all the town’s residents are displaced with thousands living in schools, church basements, stadiums and other facilities in Edmonton and Calgary located four to seven hours south of the disaster.

While most residents of Fort McMurray fled, some residents stayed to engage in critical work operations and some corporations, including most of the region’s energy sector companies, have also been on the ground attempting to manage not only the safety of their businesses but also the safety and future well being of their employees. Despite the ensuing chaos, there is much to learn from how many of the region’s businesses have responded to the devastation and danger.

The Energy and Airline Industry’s Corporate Collaboration is Saving Lives

When evacuation orders were issued, most residents initially drove south but as the only highway leading out of Fort McMurray was shut down due to the fire, many evacuees were forced to head north instead. Since Fort McMurray is the last major stop on the highway leading north, the only place to go was to the oil refiners, which are primarily located north of the city. Several major producers, including Suncor and Shell, immediately offered shelter to the evacuees in their on-site worker barracks. Unfortunately, as the winds turned, their benevolent act backfired, leaving thousands of evacuees at risk of being trapped north of the city in the oil fields. By the end of the week, the same companies were working hard to to airlift the evacuees to cities far south of Fort McMurray. To accomplish the massive airlift, West Jet, a discount Canadian airline based in Alberta that has benefited greatly from the oil boom and its business, stepped in to help shuttle thousands of evacuees to safety in a single day.

The oil industry and airline industry’s efforts have demonstrated great care, responsibility and corporate collaboration at a critical moment.


Staying Put–The Heroism of Fort McMurray’s Essential Service Workers

While most news stories on the raging forest fire in Fort McMurray have focused on the fire fighters, it is important to bear in mind that fire fighters are not the only people who have remained in the town and on the ground throughout the fire. A small number of workers at the city’s water plant have also stayed on the ground–at times working only fifty feet away from the flames in a control room full of smoke (the workers were reportedly only wearing dust masks)–in order to keep the city’s water system operating and the reservoirs full so fire fighters can continue to fight the fire within the city limits. As one supervisor from the plant who stayed behind for the first five days explained, “We care, and it’s hard to stop caring. We know keeping the water going is important for the firefighters, and we’re there for them as much as they’re here for us.”

For the time being, oil operations–1 million barrels per day–have come to a total halt in the region just north of Fort McMurray, and the halt is already causing reverberations around the world as oil prices, especially in North America, surge.

As the fire continues to burn through the region’s northern forests, reports of best practices in management remind everyone that taking care of workers is important both in and beyond the workplace, and this is especially true in the face of natural disasters.


May 8, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016      

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