The Other Side of the Emergency

Salvation Army victim services mobile canteen assists in Ottawa fire
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The Salvation Army is a recognizable name in many communities throughout Canada, but few know of the many services this organization provides. One such program is the Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) program. Many first responders will recognize their Canteen Services, making sure crews have nourishment and hydration during a prolonged emergency scene, but many first responders will only know the other half of this effort by hearing, “Is Victim’s Services required?” After the response to that question, few are aware of what this group then offers. When you picture an emergency scene, or see one covered by local media, you will envision fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars. The EDS response vehicles, when required, will be on scene to take care of the other side of the emergency.

The Program Coordinator, Craig Dunbar, is familiar with both sides of emergency response, as he is also a suppression firefighter with Station 64 in Carp, with Ottawa Fire Services. He has been involved with the organization for nearly five years. As a firefighter, he was always interested in the support services offered to clients “after the fire” and when health issues took him away from active firefighting duties he did some research and found that volunteering with The Salvation Army would allow him to continue to assist residents in their time of need.  

Melissa Donaldson, is a student at the University of Ottawa and became interested in volunteering with EDS when she first heard about it at Camp FFIT (youth firefighting camp for young women in Ottawa) from a fellow camp participant and current EDS volunteer, Megan Berardelli. Melissa initially became involved hoping it would help with her journey to become a firefighter. She started as a junior volunteer and quickly moved up to senior volunteer and is now the leader of Team Delta. Melissa quickly recognized the value of the EDS program and learned a great deal about working with “the people side” of Emergency Services.

In Ottawa, the Canteen Services team is comprised of members from the Retired Ottawa Fire Fighters Association (ROFFA) and other EDS volunteers. These members provide hot meals, snacks, and hot and cold beverages at the scene from a fully equipped food services vehicle. Many of these members are also trained PTSD counsellors. This team responds not only to fires, but other emergency situations where first responders have been on scene for an extended period of time, such as the shooting that took place at the War Memorial and Parliament Hill in October, 2014.

"The Salvation Army Victims Services team offers assistance to individuals affected by fires, floods, and disasters"

The Salvation Army Victims Services team offers assistance to individuals affected by fires, floods, and disasters through emotional support during and after the emergency and tangible items to help them get through the time immediately following. The EDS Victims Services vehicle is a refurbished ambulance donated by the City of Ottawa and carries items such as clothing, blankets, snacks, drinks, socks, hats, gloves/mittens, diapers, hygiene kits, and baby onesies to meet immediate needs. Other items offered are clothing, furniture, and bed vouchers, as well as Loblaws gift cards. All are issued dependent on each client’s needs. Clients are also guided through “next steps”, such as contacting insurance companies, helping to organize available emergency funding, psychological support, family counselling, housing support, Community Family Services, as well as any other required services. It is common to see the EDS unit on scene of fires, but they can also assist Ottawa Police Services with Victim Crisis Units calls, as well as assisting evacuees of Northern Communities during flood season, such as during the Kashechewan Flood in 2014.

When asked what differences he sees between emergency response as a firefighter and as a member of EDS, Craig instead first sites the similarities. “Both organizations have similar goals as both groups’ intervention is meant to help people on what is likely their worst day.” The difference is that emergency crews work to minimize the loss and damage and to protect and save lives where as EDS provides direct support to begin the recovery process. The organizations connect during item retrieval; working to collect valuables, medications, documents, etc that are left at the home and return them to the clients. Emergency Services works on managing the emergency scene, EDS’s focus is to manage their clients. As a volunteer with EDS, and candidate on the hiring list with Ottawa Fire Services, Melissa knows being a part of this organization will help improve her skills in the future as a firefighter. She has gained great experience and firsthand knowledge of emergency scene management, but most importantly, knows what is important to the individuals involved, and their needs.

"Intervention is meant to help people on what is likely their worst day"

The work is hard, the hours can be long and unpredictable, many times in the middle of the night, but it can also be highly rewarding. Craig sites a fire in April 2015 on Deerfield Ave as a testament to the program’s abilities. It was a fast moving, wind driven fire that destroyed a 30 unit complex, leaving more than 70 people homeless. Between EDS, Red Cross and the landlord, Minto Homes, all but a few were relocated within hours, provided with hotel rooms and essential needs until a more permanent solution could be arranged. On a personal level, Craig recalls a fire where a single family home was destroyed. When the team arrived a family of four, mom with her two sons and a daughter, were inside their neighbours’ house, devastated and unsure what to do. While team members worked with the family, Craig went to the truck and brought back a bin containing socks, hats, gloves, and mittens for the kids to choose from, as they were all in pyjamas and bare feet. The young girl had been very emotional and was arguing with her mother until she saw a pair of fuzzy, colourful socks. She was reassured that she could   take anything she wanted from the bin. Craig recalls, “Her face lit up, she put on the socks and started dancing around the house showing the socks to her family and the neighbours. That touched me and stayed with me as a wonderfully heart warming moment.”

Melissa finds the experiences rewarding, as she can see the relief on their clients’ faces when they arrive. “We help people of all ages and cultures, as well as people in all different kinds of situations. It’s an amazing feeling, leaving a scene and knowing you’ve just helped someone on one of the worst days of their lives.” She finds the work with their clients the most rewarding, but states the look on the exhausted firefighters’ faces when she hands them a hamburger and hot coffee is a close second. Melissa says, “I’m proud to be a volunteer with EDS and seeing that I’m making a difference in my community makes crawling out of bed for 3am calls, in the dead of winter, worth it.”

Ottawa Emergency Disaster Services team is always looking for talented volunteers. You can contact Craig Dunbar for more information –

Toronto Emergency Disaster Services team is actively recruiting for their team. You can contact Mark Evans for more information –


Written by Sue Jones – Sue is a Fire Prevention Officer with Ottawa Fire Service, after serving her community for 8 years as a firefighter. She is a Fire Service Women Ontario co-founder, served on the board for the first 7 years and is the Director of the inaugural Camp FFIT in Ottawa.

Craig Dunbar has served with Ottawa Fire Services for 21 years and is the Program Coordinator for the Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services.

Melissa Donaldson is entering her fourth year at University of Ottawa, completing a Bachelor of Arts Double Major with Honours in History and Psychology and serves as a Group leader with Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services.

Previously published in the Fire Service Women Ontario summer 2016 publication.

Photo: By Sue Jones