Canada’s ultimate disaster response team

By Ally Foster

In blockbuster movies, when there’s a ticking bomb attached to a cell phone, counting down the minutes until it blows a public space (often with a president or mayor nearby) into pieces, the Liam Neeson or Gerard Butler lone wolves always seem to singlehandedly save the day.

But, that’s Hollywood.

In reality, when there’s a threat of a terrorist attack, a suspicious package found, radiation detected, or a high-profile event such as the G8 Summit to secure, a highly skilled joint task force — comprised of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military’s special forces — is called in.

The team — which is referred to as the CBRNE Response Team in security circles — works with the support of Canada’s Public Health Agency to prevent and respond to a range of high-consequence but low-probability risks to public safety.

So, what does the long acronym (which doesn’t conveniently spell a related word, or even roll off the tongue) stand for? It represents the intense and complex threats that the members of this specialized team put their lives on the line to eliminate: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive attacks. 

The RCMP members of the team specialize in explosives and forensics, while the Canadian Armed Forces members and DND personnel take the lead on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defence.

The team undergoes intensive training in order to do everything from conducting high-risk searches of areas that are suspected to be involved in a terrorism plot or domestic attack, to securing and protecting locations used for high-profile events. For a high-security occasion, the team is also involved in providing leadership and training to local law-enforcement groups.

 Private Jennifer Fodor, a member of 2 General Support Battalion from Petawawa, Ontario, checks Warrant Officer Benson for chemical contamination with two chemical agent monitors (CAM) during a decontamination operation. (Combat Camera)

Private Jennifer Fodor, a member of 2 General Support Battalion from Petawawa, Ontario, checks Warrant Officer Benson for chemical contamination with two chemical agent monitors (CAM) during a decontamination operation. (Combat Camera)

Recently, the unit has worked alongside Ontario’s Emergency Medical Assistance Team to prepare for any possible disaster during the 2015 Pan Am Games, which will be hosted by Toronto in July 2015.

The Public Health Agency of Canada also contributes a team to the CBRNE network; a Microbiological Emergency Response Team, which has expertise that has, over the years, been lent to the World Health Organization as well as other countries. The microbiological team provides on-site identification and containment of possibly dangerous biological elements, and can deploy along with two highly sophisticated mobile laboratories.

When it comes to dealing with radiological threats, the team leans on the expertise and capabilities of the Federal Radiation Assessment Team. This group is comprised of personnel from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Defence Research and Development Canada (Ottawa), DND’s Director Nuclear Safety, Health Canada, the Radiation Protection Bureau, and Natural Resources Canada.

This group has five mobile nuclear labs, in its back pocket, including discreet radiation surveillance equipment.

The hope, of course, is that the CBRNE team will work mostly in prevention, preparedness, and training capacities, which the Canadian government says is becoming more and more necessary.  

“Terrorist attacks are increasingly focused on western interests and Canada has been specifically identified as a target by terrorist organizations,” explains the CBRNE strategy on the Public Safety website. “Canada is also at risk from domestic sources such as radicalized individuals, extremists and criminals. This threat, aggravated by the prevalence of potential CBRNE materials normally used for industrial and scientific purposes, requires coordinated action by many contributors.”

The National CBRNE Strategy was crafted and put into place in 2005 and, although it is unclear how many potential disasters or attacks the response team has prevented since its inception, one thing is clear: the Canadian public appears to be in even better hands than those of the scripted Hollywood heroes, who also always manage to stop the unlikeliest of calamities before the rolling credits.