What we need is a real alternative for “too little, too late!”
In this first of a two-part feature on disaster relief, author Eva Cohen explains why Canada should change the way it deals with impending natural disasters and rely on the military only as a last resort.
Large-scale emergency events are increasing in frequency and cost. Yet, the 2017 spring flooding in Eastern Ontario and Quebec was just the latest example of how we tend to be complacent until something bad happens. Then we are surprised and shocked, which creates chaos in what should be a well-prepared and planned exercise where procedures kick in automatically.
During these events, we rise to the occasion and try to deal with the situation. Everybody gives their absolute best, and more. The various levels of government repeat endlessly that they are there to help and support, and they make every asset available in trying their best to cope with the emergency. But inevitably, first response capabilities (fire, police, emergency medical services) and other available resources become overwhelmed. Canadians react; many as ‘spontaneous volunteers.’ As Canadians, it is our nature to offer a helping hand.
We are all doing our very best … but too often we are forced to ask ourselves why our best doesn’t seem to be good enough.
Everybody knows that most natural disasters are not preventable and no government or politician is to blame for them. Yet, when questions are directed at the federal minister of Public Safety and provincial, territorial and local authorities, there is certainly a lot of blame thrown around, coupled with questions and bickering around costs. The stock answer from government is: Everything is being done the way it should be; this is how the system is meant to work.
And THAT is exactly what our problem is. Our system is responsive and reactive … and in urgent need of a shift to proactive modern preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.
From reactive to proactive
Our current system divides us into two camps: those affected by the disaster and those whom we hold responsible for dealing with it. This can result in a bitter chasm between the two, full of recriminations at a time when everyone involved should be working hand-in-hand. If we think about it, we must realize that it is not possible for Canada to keep us safe … we have to keep Canada safe. We all have a role to play, and it is essential that we have a system in place that invites us and allows us to play a meaningful and active part.
In trying to figure out what real “resilience” looks like and how we can achieve a “whole of society approach,” we should not reinvent the wheel. Many of our friends and allies, especially those with a higher population density than ours, have practiced effective disaster relief for many years. There are valuable lessons to be learned from international best practices.
Let us first look at our own experience. During the recent flooding, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale’s answer was: “The federal government supports the efforts of the provinces, and now that they have asked for federal assistance, we will deploy the Canadian Armed Forces. They are experts in what they do; they have structure, coordination, logistics.”
He is absolutely right. What is needed in an emergency situation is structure, coordination, capacity and expertise, but to be effective and efficient it has to be in place locally before the disaster occurs.
Currently, our system requires that an emergency worsens to the point that local resources are overwhelmed and then, after the damage is done and mitigation efforts come too late, we bring in our asset of last resort, the military, and trust that they will somehow rescue the situation.
It seems unfair that when the Canadian Armed Forces arrive to show federal support and to boost morale, they are criticized for being “too little, too late!” Sadly, there is often some truth in these complaints. In addition, as in the recent floods, one cannot but wonder if using expensive armoured vehicles to go from house to house to check on residents after an entire neighbourhood is inundated is really the best use of taxpayer money.
There is the common misperception that in peacetime our soldiers are not very busy and, as they are being paid anyway, we should make use of them and their equipment. This is far from reality. As well, in most cases the Canadian Armed Forces is not a local asset. Members of the CAF do not deploy when their added benefit is needed most — to identify vulnerabilities before a disaster strikes and to help mitigate its effects with quick and efficient expertise as well as specialty equipment. The earlier you want the CAF to deploy, the more the mission will cost. And provinces, territories and municipalities themselves could be liable for these expenses. As a result, the armed forces are always our asset of last resort and they often arrive too late to mitigate the worst of the disaster. And after a disaster, they are not legally able, nor are they generally available, to assist in the long, and often painful, recovery efforts.
Mitigating emergency situations
So we tend to ignore our vulnerabilities until something nasty happens. Then we realize that we are unprepared and that we lack local capacity to mitigate the impact of any emergency situation (earthquake, storms, wildfires, power outages, etc.). For example, in the case of a flood, instead of building solid sandbag dikes and deploying high-capacity pumps at strategic locations, we watch whole neighbourhoods flood and see people build sandbag walls around individual homes. Unfortunately, lack of know-how often means that this protection is not being properly built and residents, and the volunteers who help them, often see their hard labour done in vain.
Once the worst of the disaster is over, because we don’t have a local, trained infrastructure repair capacity to help with the recovery phase, we have to rely on community volunteers to help clean up the mess and start the long process of recovery. Municipalities are reluctant to decide on their spending as they are unsure if and how much funding will be available. In this phase, as in the actual response phase, ad hoc volunteers are the only surge capacity available and municipalities have no choice but to make best use of them despite their lack of training and experience, and despite serious insurance and liability challenges.
There will always be a role for the Canadian Armed Forces. But their numbers are limited and emergency response is not their primary focus. If we picture some serious non-peacetime scenarios, it becomes more obvious why it truly should only be our asset of last resort.
Investing in emergency preparedness
What is needed is a system that allows the federal government to best support the provinces and municipalities in their efforts to create and maintain local capacity, logistics, coordination, structure and oversight before an emergency situation escalates into a disaster or catastrophe. Rather than spending taxpayers’ money solely on costly after-the-fact damage repair, it should be invested in a sustainable capacity guaranteeing foresight and future preparedness.
The most cost-effective way to do this would also close the disconnect between citizens and the government. The German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), widely recognized as international best practice, confirms that under a federal system similar to ours, a national operational government organization should be based on local citizen volunteers that are trained, certified and equipped to be reliable technical experts in civil protection. Furthermore, this type of federal system creates a functional whole-of-society approach.
Under this system, the government shows leadership and foresight, while the private sector makes use of its corporate social responsibility and supports the employees in their efforts to volunteer. In return, it gains tremendously from the expertise the volunteer experts bring back into the private sector in regards to preparedness and business continuity planning. Citizens make the effort affordable by volunteering to do their share as part of the team. Through an active youth component, volunteers often start as teenagers and remain part of the organization long after they retire from their professional lives.
This kind of technical civil protection agency offers a fascinating escape from the routine of everyday life. The interesting training covers a long list of skills and tasks: logistics, communication, command and control, illumination, bridge building, water purification and drinking water supply, debris clearance, urban search and rescue, wildfire fighting, combating oil pollution, emergency power supply, infrastructure repair, water rescue … just to name a few.
A Canadian version of this operational model would create a structure and standards that guarantee regional, provincial and national scalability as well as making best use of all of our already existing capabilities. It would fill the identified gap of a technical, local SECOND response and infrastructure repair asset, and like Germany’s THW, it could also become a Canadian civilian disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization for international deployment.
As part of an international network (including at the youth level) of such civil protection organizations, and volunteer experts would come together regularly for joint training and sharing of best practices and lessons learned, thereby increasing the value for all.
Now that Canada is back, we want to be part of this!
Next month: A look at how a civil protection organization would work in Canada and internationally to help in times of crises.