Canada to pilot options for national emergency response agency in 2024: Sajjan
By The Canadian PressNews Securing the Nation
By Mia Rabson in 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 says.
It is clear some kind of federal co-ordination agency is required, Sajjan said in an interview 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.
More than 18.5 million hectares — or 185,000 square kilometres — of land has burned since the beginning of the year. That’s 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; tens of thousands of people were evacuated and several thousand homes and other structures destroyed. Poor air quality warnings forced people indoors for days, if not weeks, at a time.
Only once or twice in the past two decades have the wildfires in Saskatchewan compared to the 2023 season, Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency’s vice-president of operations said earlier this year.
As of mid-October, SPSA had responded to 493 fires this year — well above the five-year average of 388. The total area burned is equivalent to five times the size of Prince Albert National Park. Vice-president of operations Steve Roberts said only 2015 and 2017 compare to the blazes this year over the past 20 seasons.
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 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.
Canada is one of the few G7 countries without a national emergency co-ordinating agency of some kind.
Sajjan said there are some lessons to be learned from the Federal Emergency Management Agency 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.
His vision leans toward local-level civilian reserve forces that can respond quickly and be shared when needed, but he admits “we have a lot of work to do to get a better understanding how it works.”
Ken McMullen, 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 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.
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.
The minister is frank about the fact that launching a new national response force or agency will not happen quickly, and a lot of planning is needed to anticipate what could happen next.
“We had wildfires, we had floods and we immediately went into hurricanes,” he said. “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. 18, 2023.
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