July 10, 2014 4:00 pm

Why you should care about Toronto’s preparation for the Pan Am Games

Are you as excited for the Pan Am Games to come to Toronto as Mayor Rob Ford, seen above waving the Pan American flag during the Closing Ceremony of the XVI Pan American Games on Oct. 30, 2011 in Mexico? Here's what you need to know.

Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

TORONTO – It’s the one-year countdown to the Pan Am Games, which is a factoid that may garner the response: Who cares?

But even if you think of them as the Olympics’ less popular younger brother, Torontonians—and anyone in the city next July—should pay attention to the amount of preparation underway.

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Because if something goes wrong with the added impact of thousands of visitors to the Big Smoke, you’ll want to know how to cope.

Who’s running the show

There’s a number of agencies involved in the emergency planning of the Games, but one man working with the Toronto Centre Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) stands out.

Tim O’Leary was specifically called in to lead and coordinate the emergency response plans for the 14 LHINs across Ontario.

He’s spent the last 22 years as a senior officer in the navy, and (“unfortunately”) worked in such disaster situations as the crash of Swiss Air Flight 111, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kandahar, Afghanistan and operational planning in the Americas, South America, and the Caribbean.

“My role is to provide a dedicated planner to help everybody coordinate, and make sure we’re all singing off the same song sheet,” O’Leary told Global News in April.

He said the LHIN works in concert with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, Emergency Management Ontario, and emergency services like EMS, Toronto Fire Services and Toronto police.

Goal: City services won’t be interrupted by hundreds of thousands of visitors

O’Leary said all organizations involved will have their own plans—both to ensure “business continuity” and to have a “coherent response” should there be an emergency. However, “‘no plan survives contact with reality,’ is sometimes said,” he added.

“We want to make sure that there’s no interruption to the services of the citizens within those areas when we have up to 250,000 visitors forecast to come over the course of the Games,” said O’Leary.

“A lot of those visitors are anticipated to come from other regions of Ontario, but we just want to make sure that the system isn’t overflowed.”

READ MORE: Tories warn of traffic chaos during 2015 Pan Am Games

He said the LHIN is confident in the ability of hospital’s emergency rooms to manage the impact of the Games, and notes other resources that can be added as necessary.

“There’s a portable hospital ward—essentially an emergency ward that’s run out of Sunnybrook Hospital—and it’s under the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. And that can be set up, for example, in a crisis.”

Toronto needs to be ready for a severe weather event…

O’Leary is responsible for coordinating plans with emergency departments to make sure efforts are in line to deal with things like extreme weather events. He cited the ice storm—though unlikely in July (knock on wood)—as an example of the things that can be planned for.

“[With the ice storm we had] a lot of people without power, a lot of vulnerable population movement, and lot of people just showed up, saying, ‘I’ve got no power, I’ve got no heat’ and they just showed up at the emergency room of their local hospital,” he said. “Now that can overload the emergency rooms and prevent them from doing their job.”

He said the potential for a heat wave is the most likely emergency, and his agencies need to make sure that cooling shelters can be provided for all the additional people.

…Or a violent attack like the Boston Marathon bombings

It’s been over a year since the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds of others, sending the city into lockdown and shaking residents. O’Leary said Toronto needs to be able to respond to a similar circumstance.

“The variety of staff working on this have been reaching out to people from Boston, people from the Vancouver Olympics, people from the London Olympics—so there’s been a lot of consultation and lessons learned that are being applied to this,” he said. “We’re able to figure out what went well for them and what could’ve gone better, and what they found the most effective.”

READ MORE: Liberals warn Pan Am Games $239M security tab could rise

O’Leary said one example of the lessons learned was the importance of a coordinated effort on social media to communicate instructions to the public.

“So if we take the heat stroke example – using websites, using Twitter and what have you to say: ‘Hey, cooling centres have been set up in these locations…should you find yourself in this area, this is the place to proceed to.’”

He says the biggest challenge will be effective communication.

“I think just ensuring that…the people know what resources are available for them. Because the better that’s communicated, the less the strain on the system’s going to be.”

© Shaw Media, 2014

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