'People abhor a vacuum': Review looking at Strathcona County's response to explosions

An independent review of Strathcona County’s response to an explosion in the parkade of a community centre six months ago will look at why officials remained mum on the unfolding drama as speculation and panic filled social media channels. 

“Residents weren’t just looky-loos going down the road rubbernecking at a scene of an accident,” said Carla Howatt, a communications consultant who served as a Strathcona County councillor until 2017.

“They had family members that were in the community centre. They had seniors that were in the senior centre. They had people in Festival Place. They had all of this going on. And there was genuine fear,” she said Friday on CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

The incident on Nov. 6, 2018, started with an explosion at about 6:30 p.m. in the Strathcona County Community Centre’s parkade. When police arrived, they found an injured 21-year-old man inside a vehicle. He later died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

A second explosion in the parkade happened at about 8:15 p.m. while emergency crews were investigating.

But it wasn’t until about 1 a.m., more than six hours after the incident began, that Strathcona County finally issued a statement urging people to avoid the area due to a “police matter.”

At 11:30 a.m., 17 hours after the first explosion, RCMP provided detailed information at a news conference, but the county’s messages continued to be vague.

Strathcona County Mayor Rod Frank (right) at the reopening of the Strathcona County Library earlier this week. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

“The speculation online was wild,” said Fiona Beland-Quest, who also served as a county councillor from 2013 to 2017 and is Howatt’s partner at How To Be Consulting.

“People abhor a vacuum. So with or without information, they fill it themselves.” 

The communications response to the incident moved into the spotlight this week with documents that show elected officials, including Mayor Rod Frank, were anxious to provide a public statement but were advised against doing so.

The documents, including internal emails, were released through a Freedom of Information Request done by Global News.

Frank said on Thursday that an external review is being done to look at all aspects of the response following the explosions, “from its emergency operations centre, business continuity management, recovery services and information and communication.

“As part of the after-action report, we will take a good hard look at all of our interactions, with a lens of what we can do better. I fully expect this report to highlight areas for improvement,” Frank said in a statement.

Howatt noted that it is appropriate to be cautious about the kind of information released early in an unfolding situation, but she believes the mayor needed to “take the bull by the horns,” to act in the best interest of the community.

“There needed to be a recognition of the public’s need to be reassured, even if they had the basic information,” Howatt said.

“From the very first press conference, the mayor would not even acknowledge that it was an explosion and yet it was pretty much known that it was an explosion. So there was a sense of, ‘Why are they not telling us this?’ Which then, of course, led to all kinds of conspiracy and cover-up theories.”

The review of the county’s response to the explosion will be brought to Strathcona County council by the end of this year, said Frank.

“As we move forward, we have already adopted early learnings, including role clarity with the RCMP for public communication, as part of our emergency communication and response plans,” he said.

“The incident has been difficult for our community — at all levels.”

Earlier this week, the county finally reopened the library and parkade, both of which required substantial cleanup and repairs in the wake of the November incident.

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