Halifax Explosion & health care: Learning from history

Ships in the Harbour after Explosion
Ships in the Harbour after Explosion Reference: James Burn Russell Nova Scotia Archives accession 2007-062

While the explosion is 100 years in our history, the event helped shape our current disaster response systems.

“Every time there is a disaster, it highlights gaps,” said Ismael Aquino, Lecturer at Dalhousie’s School of Health Administration and former Provincial Director of the Canadian Red Cross. Identifying these gaps can help us learn and grow as a system.

Aquino said one of the most important lessons from the Halifax Explosion was the importance of standardization.

In responding to the explosion, “One of the things they discovered is that fire departments from different areas, the first to respond, had different size hoses that wouldn’t fit into the same systems…” Standardization across jurisdictions was critical to responding efficiently in such a mass crisis.

The disaster – the worst man-made explosion at the time – also highlighted the need for national emergency services and public health plans. The explosion precipitated the creation of a Federal Department of Health in 1919 to look and plan from a national perspective, said Aquino.

It also reinforced the importance of working with partners, especially those with experience and expertise in disaster response. “Historically in disasters, we relied on Salvation Army, VON, St. John Ambulance and Red Cross. Those agreements are still in place today.”

The lessons from 100 years ago still echo today.

“Would Halifax be the same today without the explosion?” mused Aquino. “Halifax has become more resilient as a result. It’s important for us to look at and remember the history, reflect on it, be curious and learn.”