When the FedEx driver reported what he was carrying when he became involved in a car accident, people paid attention. His March 2, 2005 shipment included samples of anthrax, tuberculosis, E. coli, influenza and salmonella – all deadly viruses.
The police quickly sealed off the area, turning it into a “hot zone,” and the hazmat team – fire fighters with an expertise in hazardous materials – were called in to decontaminate the area.
Transporting viruses is routine at FedEx, and protective measures are taken to limit risks. The viruses are packaged in bubble wrap, stuffed in hard plastic cylinders, and finally lined up in cardboard boxes. Still, no one can guarantee 100% safety.
The incident happened where there has been a hazmat team since 1980, but that is an unusual case. According to the U.S.-based International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the largest fire fighters association in Canada representing all professional fire departments (except Prince Edward Island and Quebec), only 19% of IAFF affiliates have the training and proper equipment to respond to hazmat incidents.
According to their 2005 survey, 75% of fire fighters “lack the ability to respond safely and effectively to even the most basic hazardous materials incidents.” However, this doesn’t include terrorist-related chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) attacks, because, although the elements involved are the same, a different approach is used, requiring the collaboration of every group of first responders.
In accidental incidents, fire fighters are the only responders called on site. But in the case of an intentional CBRN attack, a team composed of hazmat, forensic, explosives, and emergency medical service technicians team up in the hot zone.
The special training is given in Ottawa, at the Canadian Emergency Preparedness College, but five years after a federal commitment to national preparedness in cases of CBRN incidents, results fail to show, and many wonder what has happened to the millions of dollars that were allocated.
CBRN incidents landed on the Canadian hot burner in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and subsequent anthrax attacks in the United States. Anthrax-contaminated mail was sent to several U.S. media outlets and the Senate, resulting in the deaths of five people from Connecticut, Florida, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien acknowledged the crucial role of first responders in CBRN incidents, and he allocated $513 million over five years to improve national preparedness for potential CBRN emergencies. According to his plan, first responders were to be trained at a cost of $59 million over five years, while $10 million was set aside over two years to purchase proper equipment such as suits and detectors. Another $20 million was reserved over five years to develop heavy urban search and rescue facilities.
That was prior to the creation of the department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) in 2003. Therefore, the money was divided between Health Canada, Transport Canada, the RCMP, and the Canadian Forces to develop CBRN response capabilities.
In 2001, several departments and agencies were responsible for responding to CBRN incidents, depending on their nature. For example, biological, radiological or nuclear emergencies fell under Health Canada’s mandate, while Transport Canada was acting on transportation accidents involving chemical, biological and nuclear agents.
The now defunct Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness was responsible of natural disasters, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency took care of food-related incidents. Terrorist acts were directed to the also defunct Solicitor General’s office. Today, all these are the sole responsibility of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada. The first wave of first responders were trained by the Canadian Emergency Preparedness College in March 2003.
The training is divided into four levels: awareness/basic/intermediate/advanced. Awareness training is designed for people to recognize CBRN threats, such as public transit or building operator staff.
First responders and 9-1-1 operators receive basic training, while the upper levels are designed for advanced first responders working in higher risk areas, like hazmat or explosives technicians.
As of March 2006, a total of about 1,900 Canadian first responders have been trained by the College, at a cost of $33 million. Half of them are fire fighters.
But to some people, it’s too little for too much.
In April 2005, Auditor General Sheila Fraser looked at the situation in national preparedness to emergencies and questioned the small number of first responders that had been trained by the College.
She also raised concerns about the intermediate and advanced courses that were not meeting the targeted level of response capacity, and that neither refresher training, nor the training of new first responders was provided.
The International Association of Fire Fighters criticizes the high costs of the program. According to Jim Lee, assistant to the general president in Canada, the IAFF provides similar training in the United States, which has a capacity to train 1,600 fire fighters for $500,000 per year. That equates to $2.5 million over five years, compared to the $59 million set aside by Ottawa.
Lee says he is worried that the College hasn’t trained more people. “Millions of Canadians remain at risk for sure,” he says.
However, the U.S. training is specifically designed for fire fighters, and in Canada, CBRN threats are also dealt with by police and emergency medical services staff. There would be a knowledge gap.
Financial matters are not the only point in question. Who should receive what level of training is not clearly defined at PSEPC. “I don’t see a definite federal plan for intermediate and advanced training,” says Linley Biblow, a Calgary disaster services officer who helped to design the Canadian program. Besides requesting hazmat, forensic, explosive and advanced emergency medical services technicians to receive the highest training, it remains vague on what cities or areas are targeted. “It’s not tight at all,” he says.
There’s an obvious requirement for major urban centres, but not every fire department should go that far, according to Biblow. He says even Quebec City shouldn’t need intermediate or advanced CBRN training, although it is Canada’s seventh-largest metropolitan area, after Calgary and Edmonton.
The question of who should receive intermediate or advanced training depends on several factors, according to Philip McLinton, spokesperson at PSEPC. “It’s in function of the assessed CBRN threat,” he says. Once a risk is determined, the provinces and territories decide what level of response they need to protect the population. Then a demand is made to the College.
For example, risks were identified in some regions of British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. Each province determined the number of first responders they felt should be trained (and at what level), to effectively respond to these risks. This was communicated to the College, and 45 people each from British Columbia and Alberta, as well as 90 first responders from Ontario will be trained at the intermediate level in the 2006-2007 fiscal year.
So far, 202 first responders from all provinces and territories (except Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut) received intermediate training in Ottawa.
Advanced training, provided at CFB Suffield in Alberta, was given to 103 first responders from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
Assessing the needs for the awareness and basic levels doesn’t follow this process, as it is less specialized. Since May 2006, targeted people can receive the training from their home, via the Internet.
Some Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service staff took the basic CBRN training in Ottawa in September 2005. “It’s an excellent course,” says hazmat program coordinator John Moehring. He agrees that Winnipeg may not be in Al Qaeda’s plans, but “every [fire] department should receive basic training,” he states. Winnipeg’s goal is to train its 850 fire fighters to CBRN basic level. In addition, some hazmat staff will receive intermediate level training in September 2006, because he believes “every regional centre should know more than the basics.”
While CBRN training is important, a large number of fire departments in Canada still lack substantial training, according to Sean Tracey, Canadian regional manager at the National Fire Protection Association. For example, some fire services in smaller communities don’t have the knowledge to effectively respond to vehicle accidents, he says. “They’re still lacking the basics.”
He says these fire departments, often volunteer-staffed, should receive basic training before going through CBRN training. After that, terrorist-related training could be considered, he says.
In a country where everything rotates around Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Canadians tend to forget that there are smaller communities with a high risk of CBRN attacks. Bécancour, Que., with a population of just over 10,000, located halfway between Montreal and Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River, has a single-reactor nuclear power plant.
And let’s not forget Winnipeg. This major city is home to the world-class Canadian Centre for Human and Animal Health, a laboratory where a core of 50 deadly viruses are manipulated and cultivated daily – and the destination of the FedEx shipment that was caught in the accident that shut down the centre of the city.
André Fecteau is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.
© FrontLine Security 2006