Canadian Forces adapting as requests for disaster-related assistance grow
By Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian PressFeatures emergency management
OTTAWA—The first time Warrant Officer Andrew Buchan was called on to help provide disaster relief at home was the flooding in Quebec in 2017, after 15 years in the reserves. Now, only two years later, he’s back at it.
“This is a new thing,” says Buchan, whose primary responsibility is ensuring the engineer unit to which he is assigned has the tools and supplies it needs to help protect the village of Cumberland, in Ottawa’s rural east end, from flooding. “Call-outs for the military to provide this type of support, at least in my neck of the woods, weren’t as common and it’s becoming more common.”
The Canadian Forces has a long history of helping provinces and municipalities with disasters such as floods, ice storms and wildfires, but recent trends suggest those requests are growing in both frequency and scope.
The military has been called out to help with 10 weather-related disasters over the past two years, according to an analysis by The Canadian Press. That compares to 20 between 2007 and 2016 and only 12 between 1996 and 2006.
Related: Defence minister says climate change disasters could mean Canadian troop hikes
And those emergencies—which the military lumps under the moniker Operation Lentus—appear to be getting bigger, meaning the military is being forced to deploy more personnel and resources over larger geographic areas.
The Canadian Forces has more than 2,300 troops across Ontario and Quebec filling sandbags, building barriers, checking on waterlogged homes and evacuating residents. That compares to 2,200 deployed outside the country.
In Quebec, Premier Francois Legault has said he wants the military to stay after the water recedes this time, to help clean up the mess left behind—including hundreds of thousands of contaminant-soaked sandbags. The Canadian Forces can do hard, dirty work that small municipalities and even provincial governments don’t have the ready labour and equipment for. They also have engineers and other specialists who can speed up assessments of structures such as bridges to make sure they’re safe to reopen, so civilian life can get back to normal.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the military is entitled to bill lower-level governments for its work but hasn’t done so and won’t start now.
But the demand is forcing the military to adapt to ensure it is not only ready to respond when called upon, but that doing so does not mean it can’t take on overseas missions and train to defend from foreign attack.
Reservists like Buchan, a member of the 33rd Combat Engineer Regiment from Ottawa whose day job is in the federal public service, already make up a sizable portion of those providing flood relief.
Their role is set to expand even further starting this summer, says Col. Peter Allan, deputy chief of staff for continental operations at the Canadian Joint Operations Command, as the military adapts to the new reality.
While the military has long relied on regular-force units for quick responses when requests for assistance arrive from disaster-affected provinces, reservists will now take on much of that role.
“The more we can use reservists in an Op Lentus context, the less impact we have on the training cycles for other units that are deploying overseas,” Allan says.
“We’ve certainly seen the Op Lentus need in Canada, and we know that occasionally if we get hit with a number of things all at the same time, that it will burden the training that we’re trying to do with regular force in other areas.”
There have been other changes; two years ago, the military decided to start training troops in western Canada in the basics of dealing with wildfires, which have emerged as a major threat there.
“We’re not by any means training them to be wildland firefighters,” said Allan. “We’re giving them the basics so that when something does come up they are prepared to go into the field safely and assist with a fire response.”
And while it is not explicitly because of the increased demand for disaster-related assistance, Allan said the addition of 3,500 regular-force members and 1,500 reservists through the Liberals’ defence policy will also help.
“It’s relatively minor adjustments,” Allan says of how the military is changing its approach. “But those are the kinds of adjustments that we make after we assess every mission. So incremental changes, I would say.”
As for the military’s actual role in responding to disasters, Allan said that remains fundamentally the same in that the Forces acts as a supplement to provincial and municipal efforts.
Back in Cumberland, Buchan says he is ready to lend a hand wherever help is needed—even if such requests are becoming more common and closer to home.
“This is why we’re here: we are here to bring our expertise to the table and provide the support we need to provide,” he said. “It just tells us we need to be prepared to provide that sort of support.”
News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2019
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