The utilitarian sandbag, aka this year’s Ontario and Quebec lawn ornament

Reformation of Canadian Emergency Measures

Irrespective of the political mantra of preparing for an increased frequency of fires, flood and pestilence in Canada due to climate change, the average person should be prepared to go 72 hours relying on their own resources before expecting help from government services. Considering a significant number of people still die from BBQ Carbon Monoxide poisoning after the heat goes out, I would say the average person is woefully under-prepared to fend for themselves.

This last round of flooding in Quebec demonstrated the short-comings of our collective response to fluid situations during a disaster response. To begin with, the municipalities who are the front line responders to a crisis are also the same people who authorized putting people into harm’s way to begin with! Land and home owners are local governments largest source of tax income. Yes, the home owner should be doing some due diligence but they are relying on a real estate agent who is trying to make a sale and a hope that the municipality wouldn’t have zoned a house to be built in an unsafe area. Local politicians need to be operating more at arm’s length from the process. But it works out as a good deal because they’re playing the odds of a natural catastrophe being low and then if one does happen, they know the Federal government will pick up the tab. If I were the Feds, I would set up a different system to mitigate zoning habitation in known danger areas.

The next major change should be a more robust role for the military. As the system stands in Canada, a provincial government has to make a formal request for help to the Federal government for the troops to come in. This is called Aid to the Civil Power. Usually after a situation gets away from the local authority, the cries are heard of why wasn’t the military called sooner? There are many reasons such as:

  • Provincial and local officials/organizations do not have the experience to know when they’re getting over their heads. They have neither the training nor knowledge to adequately respond to larger incidents and can quickly be overwhelmed.
  • There may be a reluctance to call the military due to past incidents and prejudices. Oka officials weren’t too keen to have the troops come help in their flooded community.[1]
  • Pride is a factor. Newfoundland officials were reticent to call in the military in the aftermath of Hurricane Igor. Premier Danny Williams wasn’t a big supporter of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and this probably led to a delay in acceptance of federal aid.[2]
  • Perceived costs related to military aid are a factor. By the books, if the military is called in, the province is to pick up the tab. In reality, the Federal government will tally up a bill but only collects partial or no payment.

Under Minister Ralph Goodale, Public Safety Canada[3] coordinates the response to natural disasters. Their efforts trickle down to provincial, city and municipal Emergency Preparedness offices with varying success. Some jurisdictions such as Vancouver are very well prepared but that was because of the lead up to the Winter Olympic Games. One of the best legacies to come from that event was the implementation of E-Comm. E-Comm is a pan-communications system whereby all the disparate emergency services can talk to one another. Previously, the Lower Mainland’s many services wouldn’t have been able to coordinate relief efforts after a significant incident, such as an earthquake. But most areas of Canada don’t have the luxury of monies showered upon them for emergency preparedness, so they make do.

This is why military personnel should be co-managing the Emergency Management Centers (EMCs) similar to the model of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centers. Provincial officials and agencies lack the resources, knowledge and management experience of military personnel. They may run the occasional exercise to test their responsiveness but running exercises is the military’s raison d’etre. Military personnel typically have more experience dealing with, planning for and managing actual emergency situations. From day one in Basic, you’re put under pressure and taught how to survive, function and lead with little sleep, food, supplies or resources. This training plus a substantial bank of discipline, knowledge and expertise is continually honed throughout their entire career. During Brigadier General Turenne’s Operation LENTUS presentation[4] on the recent New Brunswick ice storm military response, he said that you could see the relief of the civilian responders immediately once the troops appeared. The locals were quickly becoming overwhelmed after a few days by even the simple tasks. As the BGen explained, his troops are agile, adaptable, scalable and responsive. Civilian officials/organizers/responders do not have the built-in tools, training or experience of military personnel at managing larger scale emergencies.

Since the military is going to back-stop the efforts of the local authorities, they should have a louder voice on the timing of the deployment and should be able to side-step the provincial officials. Currently, the admirals and generals are already keeping tabs on the domestic front through regular briefings on their areas of responsibility. They are well aware of possible problem incidents and if need be start the Warning Order process and concurrent activity in order to lean forward as much as possible. Their hands are somewhat tied as they have to wait for their official government marching orders. They’ll prod the provincial officials to consider calling for help sooner than later. Meanwhile, military units are quietly pre-positioning resources and personnel because they know the call is coming. If we already had military in the EMCs, they would be able to recognize the need for higher assistance earlier and would bring expertise to the table that their civilian counterparts are lacking. In the Navy or the Air force you’re taught to stay ahead of the ship or aircraft, not to swim in the wake.

The burning of the Town of Slave Lake in 2011 is a good example of when military management would have been more successful. The whole disaster could have been mitigated or avoided all together by the simple accessing of a weather briefing. Military members are constantly receiving or giving briefings in order to disseminate pertinent information. Every briefing starts with a Met Tech report on the forecast weather with associated meteorological products. I’m pretty sure the response to the small wildfires outside of town would have been beefed up if someone had paid attention to the forecast windstorm with its associated 100 kph gusts approaching. Even the Final Report on the Lessons Learned[5] from the fire makes no mention of keeping an eye on weather forecasts.  Civilians have access to important resources but they are either unaware or are ignorant of how to use them.

Minister Goodale noted in a recent press conference that they were going to take another look at the mechanism for responding to future Canadian disasters. Provincial officials should be given less latitude and the Federal government should give the military more latitude to respond without waiting for the red tape, egos and inexperienced civilians to catch up with fast flowing events. The Federal government is effectively picking up the tab anyways and the experts in the military should be running the show.

[1] The Oka Grand Chief unilaterally decided to decline the military’s offer of assistance citing possible hard feelings from the Oka crisis that occurred 27 years ago. Despite an all-out band effort, 30 homes were flooded and 8 were evacuated.

[2] The destructive force of Hurricane Igor was well predicted ahead of time. In addition, calls for federal assistance were delayed or never made. This exasperated the recovery of the storm’s victims.

[3] Public Safety Canada website.

[4] A PDF copy of BGen Turenne’s Operation LENTUS 17-01 presentation.

[5] PDF copy of Lesser Slave Lake Regional Urban Interface Wildfire – Lessons Learned.