Changing the Disaster Response Paradigm

Nov 18, 2018

Natural disasters are on the rise in Canada and around the world, and with this comes increasing financial pressures on impacted communities and economies. One of the big problems is that ad-hoc, under-resourced responses tend to follow in the wake of these disasters.

Team Rubicon USA Greyshirt helping muck out a basement after the flood in Marseilles, Illinois (2013).

In 2013, estimated costs associated with potential high magnitude earthquakes in Eastern and Western Canada ranged from $61 billion to $75 billion.  To put that into perspective, the total economic impact of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires to date has been assessed at $9.5 billion.  Since only $3.8 billion of those losses were insured, it is Canada’s costliest insured disaster on record, and insurance complaints are frustrating for many. The remaining costs were left to be covered by charitable donations, and governments, but with too few resources, funding and support, the community is still battling to get back on its feet.  

Military Veterans and Civilian First Responders to the Rescue
While many Canadians across the nation assisted the Fort McMurray community through charitable donations during initial recovery efforts, a collection of military veterans and first responders came together to lend a helping hand to the devastated community. Volunteer veterans from Canada, the U.S., UK, Australia, and Israel united to provide a total of 8,928 volunteer hours. They trained 300 locals and assisted more than 900 homeowners sift through their properties to recover valuables.

Team Rubicon USA volunteer helping a homeowner recover valuables in Fort McMurray, Alberta (2016).

From this experience came a new realization in Canada – veterans and first responders are uniquely suited to disaster response. Why? They have the ability to come together and take action on short notice, to form and lead high performing teams, and to get immediate results when stakes, emotions and pressures are high. Their appreciation of, and abilities to mitigate risks are well-developed. Their professionalism fosters trust and commands respect. A group of Canadian veterans recognized this and, from the ashes of the wildfire, Team Rubicon Canada (TRC) was born.

Team Rubicon is a non-profit disaster relief organization that unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams. The beauty of Team Rubicon is its dual mission: disaster response and veteran support.

Volunteers from US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Israel (IsraAid)
support wildfire recovery in Fort MacMurray, Alberta.
Team Rubicon provided $253,533 in value to the community
in just three weeks during its first operation in Canada in 2016.

Our funding, which comes from charitable donations, gifts, and government grants, enables us to help communities affected by disasters, while providing those transitioning out of the uniform with a noble cause, offering a renewed sense of purpose, community, and identity. TRC became a registered charity in 2017 and has a board of six directors, including veterans General (retired) Rick Hillier and Lieutenant-General (retired) Michel Gauthier.

While Team Rubicon is a veteran-led organization, our experiences working in cohesive teams have created an organization that is inclusive by nature. Regardless of gender, ethnicity and all other identifiers, the military gave all of us a new sense of family. From our collective military experiences comes a camaraderie and love that transcends personal differences. We further sustain those ideals in Team Rubicon Canada, whose members include first responders and civilians, with the ultimate aim of continuing our service to help those in need.

Floods are one example where Team Rubicon has been tapped for assistance in 2018. In response to rising costs of disasters in Canada, federal and provincial governments are seeking ways to not only reduce flood risks, but also to share responsibility for the protection and recovery with Canadians. Unfortunately, despite 83% of Canadians believing they have a responsibility to protect their property from flood damage, only 6% of Canadians who live in high flood risk areas are aware they’re located in one, notes a 2017 national survey report from the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo.

In 2018, widespread flooding in the Fredericton
and surrounding areas of New Brunswick caused much damage.

“The lack of risk awareness is worrying,” states the report, entitled Canadian Voices on Changing Flood Risk. While many homeowners are neither aware, nor taking steps to mitigate flood risks to their properties, some provincial governments (e.g. British Columbia) are no longer willing to provide disaster assistance when insurance is available.

Nationwide, 64% of disasters are flood-related, yet Canadians haven’t seen a representative flood map of the country since 1996. Last year, it was estimated that producing updated flood maps would cost $136 million in Ontario alone. This further limits the abilities of Emergency Operations Centers, let alone homeowners, to plan and prepare appropriately for future crises. On the flip side, with updated flood maps, many homeowners once deemed to be in high-flood risk areas will be hard-pressed to find affordable overland flood insurance, reports Greg Meckbach in Canadian Underwriter.

Greyshirts sift through debris, trying to salvage valuables for homeowners in Fort McMurray.

Based on this data, Team Rubicon saw a compelling need to support Canadians across all dimensions of emergency management – mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery – to address not only the known risks, but also the unknown emerging risks to Canadians. To ensure responsiveness during times of emergency, TRC has begun to establish, train, and equip Disaster Resiliency Units (DRUs) across the country.

TRC’s recent support to tornado recovery efforts in the National Capital Region identified another factor related to affordability – homeowners risk being taken advantage of during disaster recovery. Within a week of supporting debris cleanup in the form of chainsaw operations in the National Capital Region, our team leaders would learn of homeowners receiving cost estimates ranging from $10,000 to $40,000 for the same property; for work that TRC provided for free. These price ranges put greater stress on Canadian communities, and without a better option, many risk significant financial hardship post-disaster. With greater carrying capacity, Team Rubicon Canada would be able to send larger groups of volunteers who are equipped and trained to bring help where it’s needed and to coordinate with local stakeholders, which will help limit these potential hardships on Canadian families.

Canadian Greyshirts help an Ottawa homeowner following tornadoes in September 2018.

At 700 volunteers, and growing steadily, TRC is now represented in every province. In our first two years, we’ve contributed volunteers to 18 missions worldwide. Through carefully accounting for every dollar we spend, we will show Canadians that natural hazards don’t have to result in billions of dollars in recovery spending.

To change the disaster response paradigm in Canada, communities need more help before, during, and after disasters strike. Lessons from our Team Rubicon comrades in the UK has shown that proper preparation prevents poor performance. Donating now to Team Rubicon Canada and other charities active in disaster response will help to reduce future physical and psychological costs to those communities affected.

Volunteers stop for a group shot during Op Startling Gun in Moore, Oklahoma (2013).

While continuing to serve others, members of Team Rubicon have the potential to show Canada, and the world, the exceptional character and competence of the military veteran that survives well beyond the uniform.

Prior to becoming CEO of Team Rubicon Canada, Bryan Riddell served 11 years in the Canadian Armed Forces as an officer in the Canadian Army and Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. For information on joining or supporting Team Rubicon Canada, please go to