By Eva Cohen
In this second of a two-part feature on disaster relief, author Eva Cohen discusses the urgent need for second responders in dealing with civil protection and disasters. In preparing for the worst, Canada’s emergency preparedness system should provide communities with a more efficient way of responding to and recovering from calamity.
Assistance in domestic disasters is one of the tasks of the Canadian Armed Forces. But as the military’s main focus is on warfare, its equipment and expertise in disaster relief operations cannot be nearly as effective as a civil protection organization that specializes in all-hazards technical disaster relief, such as Germany’s Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW).
Germany, like Canada, is a federation where the German states and cities — like our provinces and municipalities — have jurisdiction in emergency management. Yet, through the THW, a federal operational agency, Germany ensures that states and communities all over the country are supported with local capacity, logistics, coordination, structure and oversight before an emergency situation escalates into a disaster or catastrophe. In Canada, this structure would also help to ensure other volunteer groups like our Canadian Red Cross, the Canadian Ski Patrol, St. John Ambulance, Ground Search and Rescue, etc., could be used to their full potential and be more effectively integrated into the overall relief effort.
As much as we need to focus on mitigating the effects of disasters, we also need to acknowledge that we cannot prevent disasters or catastrophes from happening. We need to be able to adequately respond to and recover, and as Canadians we all need to have a role in this!
Right now, our system reduces the role of the federal government largely to costly after-the-fact damage repair with little improvement for future crises. In Germany, taxpayers’ money is invested in sustainable capacity, guaranteeing preparedness for all kinds of scenarios that the average person would rather not think about. For example, the majority of people imagine an earthquake to be a terrible rumbling and shaking, but believe that many of the newest buildings will withstand tremors due to better building codes. What we don’t think about is that, even though a lot of buildings might not collapse, they could still be considered unsafe for months or even years. In addition, many roads and bridges could be destroyed or rendered unsafe and power could be cut off; and there could be food shortages, no drinking water, no sewage disposal, and thousands of people needing shelter for a long period of time. And the situation would be incomparably worse in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter.
A potential cyber attack also seems a bit abstract for most people, yet the consequences of an attack on our critical infrastructure could quickly translate into a devastating large-scale catastrophe. For some of us, these thoughts seem so terrifying — or intangible — that ignoring them is often the easiest solution.
Governments though cannot afford this complacency. Above all, the safety, protection, survival and recovery of Canadians facing major disasters is their paramount responsibility. Yet, expensive long-term projects to strengthen safety and security are not always politically attractive.
In Germany’s case, federal, state and municipal governments do have an operational capability at hand 24/7 to meet worst-case scenarios. Large-scale disasters fortunately do not happen on a regular basis, but the THW still conducts tens of thousands of domestic operations annually, assisting with all kinds of damage to infrastructure or other hazardous situations. Some recent examples are:
In June, over 700 THW volunteers from 25 detachments assisted the Berlin fire department in providing illumination, building sandbag walls, pumping out basements and providing electricity to mitigate flooding in the German capital caused by heavy rains.
Some 60 THW volunteers helped to clean up a beach in Hamburg after masses of unidentified, possibly toxic, white particles appeared on the shore.
After a terrible bus crash that resulted in 18 deaths, 20 THW members diverted traffic and salvaged the wreckage of the burnt-out vehicle.
About 100 THW volunteers assisted in the July 1 funeral procession for former Chancellor Helmut Kohl by directing the crowds, erecting a media platform and a temporary dock for the ship that carried Mr. Kohl’s casket.
In June, some 1,200 THW volunteers secured this year’s German section of the Tour de France, directing spectators and ensuring emergency routes for paramedics were planned, prepared and kept open.
These activities could of course be done by others, but they demonstrate one reason why the THW concept has been so successful for over half a century. Preparedness means to be ready when the call comes. THW volunteers routinely practise their technical skills — all needed in worst-case scenarios — to prevent or fight flooding, provide power supply, deal with hazardous material, carry out debris clearance, control traffic, provide logistics in large crowd situations, and even deal with dead bodies.
Rather than merely relying on the Canadian Armed Forces as our only technical backup for first responders, we need to give communities the means to help themselves. Civil protection cannot just be a government responsibility. But governments must play a key role in initiating, funding, organizing and setting standards to achieve this capability. A national operational federal agency for civil protection would give citizens the choice of becoming trained and certified expert volunteer members of their local detachment, to help raise funds to support them, or as business owners, to donate money and resources and/or to allow employees time off for training courses and volunteering at operations in support of first responders.
Canadian “seasons” are spring-flooding, summer-storms and wildfires, fall-flash floods and winter-ice storms. That our reactive system is outdated and no longer adequate is very obvious when we observe how we currently deal with emergency situations. The federal government assures us that they are “monitoring” the situation, like with the current wildfires in BC, and days after thousands of people are evacuated, the situation is out of control and a state of emergency is declared, we start to “quickly” deploy the CAF, our asset of last resort.
In Canada, it would be much easier than we might think to establish a proactive civil protection agency. On the national level, we need to discuss the structure and tasks of such a second response capability. To be able to quickly draw resources together in large-scale emergencies, we need to agree on standards for training curricula and equipment. Provincial offices would determine location and number of local detachments, and ensure regional and provincial coordination. As the agency is based on unpaid volunteers, funding is not spent on wages but on a lasting and sustainable infrastructure that could be used for generations to come.
At the local detachment level, it would be a family-friendly organization offering an attractive range of skills in the field of technical disaster relief. On weekends or in the evenings, the basic training curriculum would prepare volunteers on how to operate in a hazardous environment and, once certified, to focus on one or more of a wide variety of specialized skills. Among them: logistic support, communication, debris clearance, water purification, power supply, high capacity pumping, bridge repair, and many more. Very often, volunteers bring knowledge and skills from their work life into the organization and naturally fill positions they are already experienced in. The key to success, however, is for these volunteers to consistently train their skills in an operational setting and in joint exercises with other available assets, like first responders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
This also helps to identify local vulnerabilities and creates close personal and professional relationships. Larger exercises, at the regional and provincial levels, would further strengthen cooperation and ensure common standards are maintained.
An important part of the organization would be its youth element. Like the highly successful THW youth component, it would be a vehicle for recruiting, fostering a family spirit and building long-term commitment in the next generation of skilled second responders. For the youth groups, these regional or provincial gatherings are organized as competitions, where the different local groups test and strengthen their hands-on skills in an entertaining camp setting. International exchange programs add exciting and unforgettable experience within the network of civil protection.
A Canadian civil protection agency could also have an active international role. Armed forces are not always welcome in disaster-stricken countries. Experience has shown that very often a civilian agency is more agile, certainly less expensive and, most importantly, can stay longer and transform disaster assistance into efficient humanitarian aid. It also allows government to keep control over how its aid is used and delivered. As many countries have their own local urban search and rescue capacity, the most valuable international assistance is infrastructure repair and assisting in the recovery phase of disasters.
Experience gained and lessons learned in active international operations, as well as in joint international exercises, would also be of tremendous value for operations in Canada.
We have not yet recovered from this year’s spring flooding in Quebec and Ontario, and now we’re battling wildfires in B.C. But we can’t allow these ongoing crises to distract us from the pressing need to transform our inadequate reactive system into a state of proactive preparedness.
Canada urgently needs to fill the dangerous gap between our first responders and the agents of last resort, the Canadian Armed Forces. A Canadian civil protection agency is the way forward. And as others have shown, it is clearly achievable!