The Flooding Fraser

Jul 15, 2007

JTF Pacific puts disaster response to the test

On 15 June, the order to stand down on the Fraser Flood Emergency Response was given by the Solicitor General of BC and a successful operation was completed. Earlier, weather experts had warned that the melting snow would soon cause the mighty Fraser River to flood its banks. This, of course, triggered emergency response personnel at all levels to dust off their plans and equipment and prepare. In analyzing a natural disaster in the making, FrontLine Security interviewed a key player in this response.
Rear Admiral Girouard (above) is the Com­mander of Canada’s new Joint Task Force Pacific, one of the sections under Canada Command – the military’s definitive answer to domestic response when all other resources are tapped out, or when their special capabilities are required. In an exclusive interview, FrontLine asked RAdm Girouard about the first major call for help from JTF Pacific.

Many Emergency Responders in other provinces have said that, in order for the response to be effective when needed, one must train and not wait for the disaster before we “start exchanging calling cards.” I understand that the build up for this flood has offered a special opportunity to do both.  

Our sparkling new Joint Task Force Pacific, though only “stood up” on the 1st of February, had already become very well linked into the Regional and Federal departments and agencies involved with emergency management; indeed, we are permanently represented at coordination groups for Federal, Provincial and Municipal levels of Government. Minister John Les, the Solicitor General of BC, knows me and indeed, his Deputy, David Morhart, and I meet regularly, and certainly more so recently.

Institutionally, we are prominently represented on the Pacific Federal Council, SEMAC, and the Central Coordination Committee of the Provincial Emergency Programme (PEP). We maintain very close relationships and freely and regularly exchange planning information with Public Safety Canada, the RCMP, and the PEP.

This flood planning, and its serendipitous pace offered us an excellent and forgiving first major opportunity to support the civilian authorities and to test and refine our ability to perform our new responsibilities. It showed that we are not quite yet “fleshed out” at the Command level, and provided a very good gap analysis in our intellectual planning – both of which we are correcting.

The cooperation between different Federal and Provincial entities was excellent. We received superb support from our sister, Joint Task Force in Edmonton, from 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, and also from the Canadian Operational Support Command.

The pre-positioning of essential force capabilities, with the agreement of the Province, has gone very well – but has again clearly shown the need to have a permanent Army base in the lower mainland. I thank our Army fellows, Colonel Crosman in B.C., and Col Vance in Alberta, for their help in stretching the limits of the possible.

Lower parts of the majestic Fraser River are increasingly threatened by flooding during the late spring each year. This year, no fatalities and only minimal damage was reported. (Photo: Zoya Stoochnoff, City of Chilliwack)

We are now poised for a rapid and scalable response to any provincial request with the focus on saving life, relieving suffering, and mitigating loss of property – we all gained greatly from this operation.

The Joint Task Force is a new structure within the concept of Canada Command of the Canadian Forces. What does it offer, as far as better support to civilian authorities, that was not in existence before, and how does it relate to federal and provincial EM organizations?

Joint Task Force Pacific is the western-most of six joint task forces, which constitute the regionally focussed military operations centres under Canada Command. It is the single military command within B.C., and is responsible for support to all domestic operations, on a joint basis. This jointness is a first in respect of regional command of military operations. We can thus provide closer and far more effective liaison within the province between the Canadian Forces, federal, provincial and municipal levels of government.

As you are aware, this province possesses the greatest potential for natural disasters. As one former Lieutenant Governor was proud of reminding us, it was a natural disaster that created BC’s unique beauty. Nature may try to adjust it now and again.

Our important ability to obtain and maintain situational awareness and to make the very best use of local knowledge far surpasses that which was possible under past models for regional ­military support to the civil powers. Our ability to support has gained greater credibility and trust by local agencies. Through our more frequent cooperation and exchange of information, we are viewed as more reliable. Previously, regional liaison, situational awareness, and planning responsibilities were resident in Edmonton – 1200 kms and a time zone away!

Residents of Chilliwack, BC, worked tirelessly to flood-proof their homes and business. (Photos: Zoya Stoochnoff, City of Chilliwack)

What do you see as the major challenge of Emergency Response in BC, and how has joint planning for the flood helped you prepare for this eventuality?

The major challenge to timely response to an earthquake or tsunami is, in my view, the excessively long and challenging distance between BC’s population centres and the relief force that would come from Edmonton in the East or even our allies in the South.

Flood planning on a joint basis taught us many lessons in command and control, deployment planning, joint logistics, and joint communications but we have much more to plan for this serious contingency.

The operation, dubbed Operation Pontoon, represents a rare and very real opportunity to practice for any crisis response operation in aid to the Province; it certainly helped us understand better the challenges of any such crisis response operation. We have a better comfort zone for this type of operation now, and must extrapolate this to the greater contingencies we might face. Much work ahead.  

What value from this particular planning and response can, in your view, prove most helpful in planning for the security and safety challenges of the 2010 Winter Olympics?

While much greater lead time exists for planning for 2010 Winter Olympics, that also allows a much more deliberate and staged planning effort, both nationally and here in BC. This experience has indeed provided some valuable lessons, particularly in the logistic, deployment, bed-down, and command, control, and communications domains.

The most critical involvement of the Canadian Forces will be in support of security. For the Vancouver 2010 Games Security Planning, the RCMP has the lead and CF are in support. Our Joint Task Force Pacific has been working closely with the RCMP Integrated Security Unit for over a year on this matter.

Army and Air Force personnel assemble accommodation tents for the Operation Pontoon Air Component facility at Abbotsford Airport. (Photos: 2LT Jamie Donovan, JTF (Pacific)

In regard to Public Safety, the Integrated Public Safety Unit has the lead, but the different agencies come together at the Integrated Command Unit and, yet again, at senior level inter-agency policy and decision making forums, the same key players are present and are already quite accustomed to working together in a trusting and mutually respectful environment – especially after this operation.

Are there other issues resulting from the ongoing Fraser flooding contingency operation that your would like to share with emergency response authorities across Canada?

Any final thoughts?

This flood relief operation has been a test of the new Canada Command structure for domestic operations across the country. The current operation highlights the need for Regular Army and a military base on BC’s Mainland. Absent both, I have had to depend upon forces and support projected from over 1,000 kms away.  While that may be acceptable for a deliberate operation, in a no-notice crisis, that distance poses significant risks to the Canadian Forces providing a timely response in an appropriate manner.

The model we have applied in this ­situation, with joint ­military planners working alongside provincial and federal ­planners, has been a great success – and lessons have been learned throughout all organizations. We will work on improving our procedures and reactions in assistance to civil authorities, and maintaining close links and situational awareness. I regard this evolution and particularly the successful relationships established in Op Pontoon as ‘money in the bank’ for future operations.

FrontLine wishes to thank Rear Admiral Girouard for this informative insight into the challenges of BC Emergency Response coordination. Best wishes to you and your staff with the obvious challenges ahead.
© FrontLine Security 2007