July 24th, 2024

Canada to pilot options for national emergency response agency in 2024: Sajjan

By Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press on December 15, 2023.

The federal government needs a national emergency response agency but hasn't yet decided exactly what it will look like, Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said. Small spot fires continued to flare up alongside Northwest Territories highways leading into Hay River, Fort Smith and Yellowknife, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Braden

OTTAWA – A new national emergency response agency may consist of regional response teams that Ottawa can call into action when disaster strikes, Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a recent interview.

It is clear some kind of federal co-ordination agency is required, Sajjan said, speaking to The Canadian Press about the lessons learned after last summer’s record-breaking wildfire season.

But it’s not yet clear exactly what that will look like, he said.

“Yes, I believe that we will have something that’s going to be at the federal level of a response force,” Sajjan said.

“I can’t give you the answer just yet because it’s important for us to really work at the ground level to get a better understanding what those needs are. Because ultimately whatever we have, at the provincial or federal level, has to respond to the emergency. We need to get that right.”

Multiple reports have shown that climate change is leading to more frequent and more severe weather events.

In the last three summers, Canada has seen record temperatures, severe droughts, massive flooding, hurricanes and, in 2023, the worst wildfire season ever.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 18.5 million hectares – or 185,000 square kilometres – of land burned.

That is nearly 2.5 times more than the previous record of 7.6 million hectares set in 1989, and more than nine times the average area burned annually over the last 25 years.

Every region of Canada felt it, with tens of thousands of people evacuated and several thousand homes and other structures destroyed. Poor air quality warnings forced people indoors for days, if not weeks, at a time.

With many regions seeing lower-than-usual precipitation this fall, the conditions are shaping up for high risk of another bad fire season next summer.

Canada relied heavily on international firefighters coming in to help, as well as the military.

Gen. Wayne Eyre, the chief of the defence staff, has made clear the military is being relied on too much and too often for domestic deployments.

The government doesn’t disagree with that sentiment, but it currently doesn’t have many other options.

The Canadian Press first reported in June that Canada was studying options for creating a national response agency.

At the time, a task force comprising the ministers of environment, natural resources, emergency management and public safety was meeting to suss out the possibilities.

Over the past five months since he took over the emergency preparedness file, Sajjan has spent a lot of time meeting with experts, local community leaders and provincial agencies, he said, in an attempt to identify gaps and seek input on what could work better.

Canada is one of the few G7 countries without a national emergency co-ordinating agency of some kind.

The United States has the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which operates within the Department of Homeland Security.

Germany has the Interministerial Panel on National Crisis Management, which co-ordinates crisis management between states.

Australia, which is not part of the G7 but has shared fire resources with Canada numerous times, has its National Emergency Management Agency.

Sajjan said there are some lessons to be learned from the FEMA model in the U.S., but he seemed more interested in examining the German and Australian agencies. Both of them lean heavily on local and regional resources, and play more of a co-ordinating role.

The minister said he anticipates running some pilot projects in 2024 that would start by building off of existing organizations, like the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada.

“Because this way we can immediately respond to the emergencies without having to wait for years to build something up to respond,” he said.

His vision leans toward local-level civilian reserve forces that can respond quickly and be shared when needed.

“Germany actually has a model like this, and I’m quite impressed,” he said.

“But we have a lot of work to do to get a better understanding how it works. How would it function? And we have to look at, federally, what are the governance structures that potentially might need to be changed. So there’s a lot of work that needs to go into this.”

Ken McMullen, the fire chief in Red Deer, Alta., and president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, said his group has been lobbying for an enhanced federal agency model for more than a decade.

He said when it comes to wildfires, there is a disconnect between the provincial forest-fire services trained to battle wildfires and municipal firefighters trained to douse structural fires.

With more fires crossing from the forest into cities and towns, there is crossover between those two firefighting groups. But it doesn’t always happen easily.

And nationally, McMullen said, there is no one-stop shop – or minister’s office – where agencies can find help, which makes co-ordination more difficult.

McMullen said that through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre based in Winnipeg, deploying firefighters to help across provincial boundaries or international borders is mostly a smooth process.

“When that call comes to South Africa and Korea and Australia, they can act on it within a moment’s notice,” McMullen said.

Such a system doesn’t exist from an “all hazard response perspective,” he said.

“We do not have that for significant weather events. We don’t have that for earthquakes and tornadoes in our municipalities. We are simply relying on good relationships and handshakes to support other provinces and territories.”

That is not ideal, said McMullen.

Even if co-ordination is better, there are still serious gaps in human resources and equipment on the fire side.

A contingent of fire chiefs fanned out across Ottawa in early December to lobby the government for better tax credits for volunteer firefighters and more money for equipment.

Sajjan said the government is looking at the requests.

But the minister is frank about the fact that launching a new national response force or agency will not happen quickly, and there needs to be a lot of planning to anticipate what could happen next.

“What concerns me?” he asked.

“We had wildfires, we had floods and we immediately went into hurricanes. Imagine if we had a massive earthquake that happened at the same time. That’s that level of thinking that we’re going through.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2023.

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