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Chief in charge of Calgary’s battle against COVID-19

Tom Sampson’s work day starts exactly when his feet hit the floor (sometimes even before) at about 6:15 in the morning.

Tom Sampson’s workday starts exactly when his feet hit the floor (sometimes even before) at about 6:15 in the morning. “I start reviewing emails and developments overnight and anything that is unfolding in the world,” says the man leading Calgary’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “That takes me to about 6:30 and it’s a shower and then it’s off to the EOC an underground facility in the NE part of the City.”

So starts a typical day in the life for the Chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) during an atypical crisis – a historic world pandemic, one Sampson calls Calgary’s “three headed monster.”

“We have the COVID virus; we have COVID the health and wellness challenge and there’s COVID’s impact on the economy which is also suffering because of the drop in oil prices. This is the biggest call that we as a CEMA team have ever had.”

Sampson’s workday continues as he commutes to his office. He fields questions and gives answers (hands-free, of course). “I'm talking to people about any challenges they might be having, for example the Calgary Police Service, or maybe somebody needs clarity on what's going on with respect to COVID-19. It’s pretty much, 'what’s the problem and how can we help?’”

When he arrives at headquarters, Sampson goes through a series of security checks, including thermal screening, and then the meetings begin. Lots of meetings – mostly done remotely – with a variety of Calgary’s municipal and corporate leaders. He’s part of the skeleton crew at headquarters where strict distancing protocols are enforced.

Most of the members of the team work remotely. “Only four people are allowed in a boardroom during a meeting,” says Sampson, “and to promote more on-line collaboration, no more than two people during meetings by computer.” Then there are the regular news conferences where Sampson fields questions over the phone from the media playing tag team with Naheed Nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary.

The work carries on until about 8 at night, and very often later. Sampson says he takes calls as late as midnight.

Until recently, Sampson was on duty seven days a week. Lately, he has been able to take time off during weekends for more family time, to accomplish household chores and to go for the occasional run.

“We are responsible for all CEMA’s members, including agencies like ENMAX and the Calgary Zoo. “But it’s much more than that,” says Sampson. “Our responsibilities take in the entire city – everything. The breadth and depth of this is as far as you can go. It's how wide you can stretch your arms.”

Sampson, a SAIT-trained paramedic and Distinguished Alumnus, has been instrumental in leading the response for many of Canada's top disasters, including Pine Lake tornado, Slave Lake, Fort McMurray, High Level fires and the 2013 floods. He says his SAIT education comes into play every day at CEMA.

“I graduated in '85 as an advanced care paramedic and I've kept my licensure to this date. I worked as a paramedic, spent 24 years in EMS and five years in CFD, leadership roles and now five years as chief of CEMA. What has really helped me is my exposure to the medical community and my capacity to ask doctors questions and get great answers.”

Update: After more than 35 years of service, Tom Sampson retired as Chief of CEMA. His last day was Nov. 30, 2020. 

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