Equipping First Responders for CBRN incidents

Jul 15, 2007

Would Canada be able to effectively respond to a Weapons of Mass Destruction attack? A cooperative initiative aimed at providing critical equipment and training to First Responders, is needed to enable them to safely intervene in Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear (CBRN) incidents. The solution – let’s call it a First Responder Rebate Program (FRRP) – would provide the equipment and training necessary for effective and efficient First Responder (FR) rescue operations.

Currently, if a CBRN call comes to a Responder without the right equipment and training, they are instructed to vacate the site and call in the military.

We must not ignore the CBRN threat. As Lieutenant-Colonel Barker concluded in the May/June edition of FrontLine Defence, “investing in CBRN defence is akin to purchasing insurance coverage. It is always hoped that such protection is not needed, but it is important to maintain.”

Effective and efficient rescue operations is the primary tactical objective of a CBRN response operation. Currently, if a CBRN call comes to a Responder without the right equipment and training, they are instructed to vacate the site and call in the military.

The ability of Canada’s firefighters, police, and EMS personnel to protect the public from a CBRN event is more critically important knowing that the cost and consequences of this type of event, if un-mitigated, can be much more widespread and lethal than a conventional explosive. Therefore, the FRRP would limit the impact of an incident by providing early and effective containment and mitigation capabilities where they do not exist today.

Next, the needs of the FR community are to be specified by the responders themselves – through their member Associations and other representative organizations. Besides the technical specs, FR groups know what they need – from a planning perspective as well, which is key to our present and future security. An efficient and effective CBRN supply program needs to be designed for a minimum of 10 and optimally 20 or 25 years, wherein supplies and training are continually replenished as required.

Because of the word “Mass” in WMD, Canada’s CBRN defence capability needs to be national and local at the same time!

Across jurisdictions and FR roles, a workable CBRN defence system for Canada would need to be interoperable and widely available. In the event of an incident, an appropriate national approach will require a local response to coordinate an access program where federal funds are expended only though a squeaky clean process – and only when actually needed.

Increasingly, the threat of a “dirty bomb” (a radiological contamination spread by conventional explosive means) has moved higher on list of national security threats by groups such as the Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC), the Canadian Forces (CF), Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the RCMP, among others. Currently, there is very limited capability on the part of Canada’s responder community to detect and mitigate a radiological event. As plume models and impact analyses from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency have shown, the cost and consequences of an unmitigated Biological or Radiological attack become extremely serious with each minute that passes.

One solution would see the Canadian Government creating a rebate-style program – what we are calling the FRRP. From an oversight point of view, the FRRP could be administered through an appropriate body, such as the Canadian Police Research Centre or the Public Security Technical Program. With this umbrella, there can be an official blessing of the equipment list that has passed scrutiny of the FR requirements. Each FR department across Canada (3,500 fire departments alone) can then buy what they need for the community they are responsible to protect. Once they have paid for the equipment and training, they can request the rebate funding.

The FRRP can be likened in concept to the Munitions Supply Program (MSP) that was born out of a 1974 Cabinet decision recognizing the need to have access to a necessary supply of conventional munitions on demand. From the outset, munitions companies and the DND customers were unanimous in their support of the Crown’s conclusion that the MSP has played, and will continue to play, a vital role in meeting the munitions requirements of the Canadian Forces (CF).

Progressively since 1974, the threat of asymmetrical CBRN attacks on Canadian interests at home and abroad has become acute. While the MSP in the past has been useful in ensuring that the CF has what it needs to fight conventional wartime threats, the FRRP is now needed to ensure that the broad array of domestic responders have the necessary equipment and training to combat a terrorist CBRN attack.

As a matter of National Security, immediate action should be taken to establish an FRRP with broad Cabinet level support from a variety of federal departments including National Defence, Public Safety, Public Works, Industry, Treasury Board, Environment Canada, Foreign Affairs, and perhaps others.

The FRRP will help to ensure First Responder effectiveness and, thereby, public safety here in this country and in our embassies around the world. As with munitions planning, the FRRP needs to drive supply availability to reduce the typically long lead times required for the equipment, supplies, and training of a fully functional anti-CBRN capability.

Incremental investment will be required by both industry and the federal Government to ensure that Canada’s CBRN requirements are addressed on a priority basis. Canada’s overall defence and security policy requires an indigenous capability for accessing the required equipment, supplies and training on a ­sustainable basis.

Curing Current Deficiencies
Canada’s security watchdog, the Senate Standing Committee on Defence and Security, issued its third report on National Security in 2005. In its discussion of the problem, the Committee noted that, “the government has not pledged a sustained commitment to first responders for necessary chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) equipment purchases and training.”

Further, in its challenge to the Government, the Committee stated, “the government must ensure that first responders have sufficient money to buy CBRN equipment and that equipment funding matches training funding.”

The Auditor General of Canada also looked into the deficiencies of Canada’s CBRN defence capabilities and noted that there was “a considerable variation in the capabilities of the CBRN equipment purchased and in the training required for its proper operation. These variations would translate into problems with interoperability and surge capacity.” The Auditor General was specifically critical of the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) for failing to provide the First Responder community with a list of approved equipment and training procedures.    

The Senate Committee was specific in its recommendations relative to funding the First Responders to properly use CBRN equipment The Committee noted that funding should “be a government priority after 2007. Funding for training cannot dry up or first responders’ hard-acquired readiness to respond will rapidly diminish.”

Deficiencies in the response capabilities of the First Responders are best seen through the eyes of the Responders themselves. According to feedback from the CAFC, Canada’s firefighters are often the first on the scene of a CBRN event. However, due to the lack of appropriate equipment and training, they are ­currently instructed not to intervene in a situation where there may be radioactive or biological agents present.

Alternatively, with the proper equipment and training provided by the FRRP, the CAFC claims all Canada’s firefighters will prepare for and be available to intervene in a CBRN event.

FRRP Project Development
Surveys of the country’s First Responders needs vis-a-vis CBRN capability has determined that the cost to fully prepare Canada’s First Responder community is $400 million (Allen-Vanguard Corporation, Winter Study 2007). For this money, all Canada’s Critical Infrastructure (CI) and all population centres (Largest 100 Canadian cities and communities) are afforded the sustained ability to detect and mitigate a CBRN attack or accident through efforts of the First Responders.

The FRRP addresses two major national requirements:

  • quickly provide Canada with a safety net from potential CBRN catastrophe;  
  • provide sustained regional industrial growth in equipment development and manufacturing as well as regionally-delivered training.

The spin off business opportunities are difficult to measure accurately but include local transportation, trades, and manufacturing. They also include new age economies such as long distance teaching and upgrading skills using the latest communications and learning management capabilities – again, relying on frontline personnel to provide the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedure).

Investment in the FRRP is required from all stakeholders – and there are a lot of them! Obviously the leadership of Government is most apparent, as reports from the Senate Committee and Auditor General indicate.

The nature of the threat, however, dictates that responsibility for a successful FRRP initiative will involve the participation of the security industry, the First Responder organizations (more than 5,000 fire, police and EMS departments across Canada), other civilian authorities, and the public itself in terms of awareness. Ultimately, the Canadian public will become engaged in the discussion if the FRRP becomes an election issue within the national security agenda.   

Major Harold Bottoms is an Ottawa-based Consultant.
© FrontLine Security 2007