Emergency Preparedness in Canada

Sep 15, 2008

Reading the latest Report on Emergency Preparedness in Canada from the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, one cannot help but feel the Committee’s frustration, anger and foreboding. While their observations can be sarcastic and glib, they have certainly earned the right to be so. Their pointed observations on the inadequacies of the emergency management structures, process and resources in our country have fallen, time and again, on deaf ears from all orders of government. Members of the Committee have tried every possible formal route to spur the federal government into action… any action. It appears that, in this report, they have decided to try a different methodology; one of informal black humour. Time will tell.

Emergency Management is a fundamental reason for the very existence of government. Long ago, small groups of individuals banded together to face the hazards of their world. At the time, the hazards were fundamentally “natural,” such as wild animals, severe weather, wildfires, disease and geological events. Assigned leaders were responsible for miti­gating against, preparing for, responding to and recovering from hazards that might occur. They gave up individual “rights” in order to achieve this “collective” safety and security.

Today, this fundamental responsibility of government for the safety and security of the people they govern has not diminished. In fact, natural hazards can now have a far greater impact due to the increased size of our population centres. In addition, human induced hazards, both intentional and accidental are frequently of greater concern than natural hazards.

Citizens have every right to assume that their municipal, regional, provincial, and federal governments fulfill this obligation. All orders of government have responded with a wide range of legislation and regulation – frequently in reaction to the last major emergency or disaster.

The Senate Committee Report, rather than focusing on the Federal order of Government, has attempted to review the status of preparedness of all orders of government. In the process, they have unfortunately erred at times in their assignment of certain areas of responsibilities and blame for shortcomings. That said, their overall assessment of the lack of action by the federal order of government in the past seven years, is significantly understated.

The Committee divided their observations into 12 problems. While each of these can be reviewed as a stand-alone, the sum unfortunately does not represent the full dimension of the inaction of the federal government, let alone the challenges faced by other orders of government.

That said, if this report is read by Canadians and they believe that the Senate Committee findings are the canary in the coalmine, they should be instantly aware that the canary has been long dead and they are at risk in the present circumstances.

Emergency Management consists of five dimensions:

  • Organizations – including all orders of government, the private sector, and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs)
  • Hazards – Natural and Human Induced Hazards (Non-intentional and Intentional)
  • Functions – Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery
  • Activities – Governance, Operations (Strategic, Operational, Tactical), Planning, Intelligence, Logistics, Communications, Financial Management, Administration, Training, Public/Private Sector Coordination.
  • Resources – Personnel, Equipment, Supplies, Infrastructure, Information Communications Technology, Publications, Finances.

As a fundamental responsibility of government, the OBLIGATION of each order of government is to ensure that each of these five dimensions is completely analyzed and incorporated into appropriate Doctrine, Legislation, Policy, Regulation, Standards, Best Practices, Plans, Process, and Pro­ce­d­ures. All of the above are then subject to continuous improvement and “ever greening.”

Unfortunately, in Emergency Manage­ment, as in other disciplines, many elected officials appear to think that “government” is only accountable for establishing the first three: doctrine, legislation and policy. They believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that all steps after that are either not required, or will simply occur without any dedicated allocation of resources or leadership.

To compound this challenge, senior civil servants have found that promotion and careers are based on supporting the Elected Officials, by limiting themselves to being legislation and policy experts. These senior executives must adamantly remind their elected superiors that legislation and policy without the remaining actions is useless. Hence, within Public Safety Canada, one is hard pressed to find personnel who either have an operational background, ability, or a desire to produce anything other than Legislation and Policy.

All 12 of the Committee findings fit into one or more of the five dimensions of Emergency Management as defined earlier. Frequently, the findings of the Committee are focussed on First Responders, Municipal Government and the lack of resources for these essential members of the Emergency Management community. Unfortunately, Municipalities and their First Responders are not, except in very rare circumstances, the responsibility of the Federal Gov­ern­ment or Public Safety Canada for any of the seven areas outlined previously.

Municipalities differ significantly across our Country, since they are the domains of Provincial and Territorial Governments. Similarly, the requirements for First Responders in the municipal order of government are the domain of Provincial/ Territorial Government. Some Provinces and Territories have legislation that defines specific requirements for Fire Services, Police Services, and Ambulance/EMT Services by size of municipality. Some Provinces and Territories do not. In a similar fashion, the Emergency Act of Canada clearly identifies Public Welfare and Public Order Emergencies as the purview of the Provincial Order of Government except in very specific cases.

Therefore, Public Safety Canada can highlight the findings of the Committee for these First Responder and Municipal areas as “inappropriate” criticism of their mandate. The department has, in the past, used this perceived lack of understanding by the Committee to ignore the other findings of the Report.

The Senate Committee is correct in stating that Canada is NOT PREPARED for a national emergency. The federal government muddles through (SARS, the Eastern Blackout), expects Provincial and Territorial governments to take action (SARS, floods, BSE), coordinate among themselves, at times completely ignores the Provincial agencies (Avian Influenza 1); and reacts to major emergencies and disasters as if they were all unpredictable. They dodge blame, ignore reports and criticize recommendations – and as a last resort, pass new legislation.

Canada needs both a fully implemented federal and national emergency management plan. The plan must cover mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery for all hazards with relation to Canada.

A plan is neither legislation nor policy, both of which only define “what” is required. A plan defines “how” the legislation and policy will actually be achieved, and includes:

  • who is in charge (before, during and after major emergencies or disasters);
  • a definition of command relationships between organizations (under command, in support, in location);
  • a statement of groupings (strategic, operational and tactical);
  • assignment of tasks (operations planning, intelligence, logistics, communications, financial management, administration, training, public/private sector coordination);
  • assignment of resources; and
  • detailed coordinating instructions including timelines.

In order to move forward, three essential actions are required:

  • A very senior Ministerial Elected Official in the newly elected Government of Canada, must become the federal Champion of Emergency Management for our Country.
  • An accountable senior supervisory Task Force must be initiated to direct and monitor a one-year priority development of “federal” (with a view to “national”) emergency management. This group must include senior federal Ministers holding appointments essential to the federal emergency management mandate and their Deputy Ministers, and should have an independent advisory group of Emergency Management Experts available to it.
  • Finally, a cross-Ministry Emergency Management Tiger Team (EMTT), accountable to the Task Force must be formed. The backgrounds of this team must include proven ability in analysis, design, implementation, evaluation and validation of programs and all program elements (Doctrine, Legislation, Policy, Regulation, Standards, Best Practices, Plans, Process, Procedures, Continuous Improvement/Ever greening).

The EMTT should be assigned the following tasks, as their sole priority, for a one-year secondment:

  • Within six weeks: Present a conceptual Federal Emergency Management Frame­work, including a Work Plan to achieve the priority elements.
  • Task Force approval within one week.
  • In the subsequent eight weeks: draft the Federal Emergency Management Plan (FEMP) for all-hazards (minus detailed annexes). The Tiger Team should request additional team members, as required, to assist in the drafting of function and/or hazard specific annexes. Finally, a budgetary impact analysis would be developed by the for potential major program costs of the FEMP.
  • Task Force approval within two weeks.
  • In the subsequent 12 weeks: prepare final version of the FEMP, with detailed annexes, for approval by the Task Force. In addition, draft an implementation action plan for the FEMP, detailing initial groupings, tasks, resources (including budget) and timelines.
  • Task Force approval period of four weeks.
  • Following approval of the FEMP (with annexes) and the implementation action plan, a cross-Ministry implementation (as directed by the Tiger Team) would commence. An initial implementation period of 16 weeks, with monthly reports to the TaskForce. This period would also include detailed budget submissions from affected Ministries, if and as required, for a Next Fiscal Year program allocation. This period would end with a detailed review of progress to date, fiscal impacts, and a draft concept to move the “federal” actions into a “national” framework.
  • Task Force review would then determine if the Task Force and Tiger Team would be required for a subsequent period, or if the FEMP could then continue to be implemented, evaluated and validated within the normal governmental process.

Skeptics will say that the process identified above is naïve, unrealistic and or impossible to achieve. It is none of the above.

This is the exact process followed in a major jurisdiction in Canada following September 11, 2001. This process achieved significant and benchmark changes to emergency management for that jurisdiction. This process does, however, require a firm commitment from the leader of the jurisdiction, and a continuing dedication of that leader to the safety and security of its ­citizens.

It is strongly encouraged that the “federal” emergency management framework and process described above be completed before attempting to develop the “national” framework. That said, the Senior Officials Respon­sible for Emergency Management (SOREM) should be fully included as information addressees in the development of this one-year process. Selected members in fact may be valuable advisors to the Task Force.

It is recognized that it may be desirable to have complete concurrence by the SOREM community to a FEMP. Unfor­tunately, regional diversity in Provincial/ Territorial Emergency Manage­ment policy and practices, as well as FPT politics in other areas may simply preclude this. As long as the FEMP governance recognizes the legislative and regulatory authorities and precedence, as and where applicable, and adheres to the responsibilities and authorities as defined in the Emergencies Act, then a National Emerg­ency Management Plan, involving all levels of government and infrastructure owners across the sectors, should dovetail easily with the FEMP.

The Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence continues to be a lone voice trying to awaken our country to the fact that our Emergency Management systems are in desperate need of improvement. The Committee recognizes that individual jurisdictions are in some cases better than others, but that these lead agencies often are ignored.

Accordingly, the Committee points out that the inter-relationship between essential supporting agencies is weak at best – and often non-existent. They highlight a lack of emergency management resources, the need for a definition of roles for critical agencies, a lack of federal action, and the continued disregard of recommendations and shortcomings.

It is time to listen. The canary is dead! We need to either evacuate the mine (Canada) or fix this problem before the next major emergency or disaster surprises the federal government again – with predictably disastrous consequences.

David Redman is the former Head of Emergency Management Alberta.
© FrontLine Security 2008