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Personnel Accountability During a Crisis: Lessons from Toronto’s Recent Attack

Personnel Accountability During a Crisis: Lessons from Toronto’s Recent Attack

Cities and municipalities try their best to create plans that account for all accidents and surprises. However, in the wake of the recent attack in Toronto, it’s important for cities to consider the unexpected.

In the April 2018 vehicle-ramming attack, a culprit drove through the business district of Toronto, deliberately hitting pedestrians. There were 10 fatalities and several more critical injuries. No matter how many drills or attacker simulations the city prepared for, authorities could not have fully been ready for this unique and troubling situation.

One of the main concerns surrounding a surprise attack is personnel accountability. In other words, who needs help, where are they, and how do they receive help as quickly as possible? A personnel accountability system can assess the status and location of all individuals within an organization.

Here are some personnel accountability takeaways from the attack in Toronto. Safety leaders can use these takeaways in their crisis communication and emergency response planning.

Readiness Personnel Accountability

  1. Create planning assumptions ‒ The City of Toronto defined planning assumptions around emergencies - how to define an emergency, how to codify the severity of emergency levels, and how to request additional resources. Planning assumptions can help personnel accountability by bringing disparate parties more quickly up to speed.
  2. Host a preparedness workshop ‒ The City of Toronto suggests holding a meeting within groups and organizations to delegate functions and services they are able to provide during emergencies. They also suggest putting those suggestions into practice by going through a workshop or tabletop exercise that helps teams drill. The city itself builds an emergency management working group into its crisis response plans.
  3. Test inter-agency communications ‒ The National Post noted that the city’s response to the attack was: “letter-perfect, the medical system responded brilliantly, the officials who manage the city’s services — from the police chief, to the coroner, to the detective leading the investigation, to the squads who combed the street for evidence — exhibited nothing but high professionalism and competence.” Effective communication between all of those groups was required to pull off sophisticated levels of personnel accountability. To follow their example, it’s important to test inter-agency communications in advance, and map interdependent relationships so that correct information is shared across groups.

On-Scene Personnel Accountability

  1. Close down operations and areas that fall outside your scope and capacity ‒ The Toronto Transit Commission made the decision to close or re-route all bus and subway service in order to assist police investigations. They noted that this was one of the only ways to ensure that both personnel and the location and status of other individuals was known.
  2. Open up controlled channels of communication with the public ‒ During the attack, the Toronto Police Services updated their website to request the assistance of any public witnesses. They provided a hotline phone number, a website, and an email address.
  3. Hyperbole and violence create uncertainty ‒ Several media outlets noted that Canadian authorities and media were measured in terms of exaggerating and speculating about the attack prematurely. Having a unified mass notification plan and making a conscious effort to avoid sensationalism helped to avoid distractions and prioritize a return to normal city operations.

Post-Event Personnel Accountability

  1. Continue making threat assessments until everyone is deemed safe ‒ Even after a suspect was captured, the Chief of Police Mark Saunders noted that nothing in the investigation would be ruled out. He referred to the fact that they were working collaboratively across agencies at a local, federal, and provincial level, alongside the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other levels of government.
  2. Personnel accountability goes beyond the day of the event ‒ The Toronto Transit Commission ended up conducting an internal review after it failed to provide adequate support for a bus driver who witnessed the attack. Reportedly, the driver was having nightmares and flashbacks and was severely emotionally troubled by the scene. The TTC are revising their standards to account for not just the physical safety of personnel, but also the mental and emotional support they may need.

The City of Toronto could not have been perfectly prepared for this attack. However, using their emergency management plan and the built-in updates and reflections coming out of it, they can be better prepared for another attack. The overall goal of personnel accountability is one that is shared with the city ‒ “to respond and reduce the impact of a public emergency and restore the municipality to a normal state as soon as possible.”

Works referenced:

Toronto’s Emergency Management Website”,

"Toronto’s Emergency Management Plan"

TTC Launches Internal Review”, The National Post

The CBC’s Lesson About The Yonge Street Van Attack”, The National Post

Canada’s Level-Headed Response to the Toronto Van Attack Shocks Rest of World”, Think Progress

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