Building Emergency Response Capability and Capacity within the Canadian Federal Government and Amongst Canada's Response Community

The following is synposis of a letter to Honourable Peter Van Loan, Minister of Public Safety Canada. February 2009 calling for the federal government to adopt the Incident Command System to build both response capability and capacity in Canada.


EnviroEmerg Letter to Minister SafeCanad
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Is Canada prepared to adopt a cohesive and integrated emergency management approach to all threats to people, property and the environment — regardless of scope and scale?   Will Canada’s national emergency preparedness approach build both response capability and capacity within federal departments and amongst other jurisdictions (local, provincial and First Nations governments) and the private-sector (companies, contractors, consultants)? 


Several federal department emergency plans and planning process have show that this is not the current situation for either of the two questions.  There is proverbial “silo” building by federal agencies undertaking emergency planning that neither builds capability nor capacity in emergency preparedness within the federal government, let alone the broader Canadian response community. The latter being local and provincial governments, First Nations, and the private-sector (companies, contractors, consultants).  The case in point is demonstrated in the significantly different emergency management structures of:


  1. Canadian Coast Guard’s National Response Plan to be used for oil spills;
  2. Canada Food Inspection Agency’s Animal Health Function Plan to be used for foreign animal disease outbreak.


This list could also include other regional, national and international emergency plans prepared by the federal government.


The types of threats these plans are designed for require a strategic integration of the broader response community as their values - whether social, financial, cultural, environmental, and international - can be significantly affected.  This integration under an emergency management system needs to occur at (or near) the incident’s site where response objectives and strategies are developed to effectively direct tactical operations.   Site (Command Post) and field (tactical) levels of response are where 90% of response performance, and hence accountability, occurs. Unfortunately, federally developed emergency plans at these levels of emergency management have two fundamental flaws that compromise building response capability and capacity in Canada, as well as in the plan’s actual response delivery:


  1. Inconsistent incident management organization, terminology, and protocols, and
  2. Insufficient integration opportunities to strategically involve other nonfederal agencies and jurisdictions (local, provincial, First Nations) or a company into to the incident management structure whenever their interests and values are affected.


The following emergency management principles specific to the two questions are should guide the federal approach to emergency management.  Emergency management needs to be: 


  • Comprehensive — emergency managers consider and take into account all hazards, all phases, all stakeholders and all impacts relevant to disasters.  
  • Integrated — emergency managers ensure unity of effort among all levels of government and all elements of a community. 
  • Collaborative — emergency managers create and sustain broad and sincere relationships among individuals and organizations to encourage trust, advocate a team atmosphere, build consensus, and facilitate communication. 
  • Coordinated — emergency managers synchronize the activities of all relevant stakeholders to achieve a common purpose. 


Note: These are four of eight other Emergency Principles developed by the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM). 


How these questions are answered can have a direct bearing on the business of training on emergency management.  The answers will ramifications on numerous other instructors across Canada whether consultant, corporate, or academic.  This is because many - but not all - major Canadian companies, and several provinces have invested time, money and effort in training responders in the internationally adopted and proven Incident Command System for emergency management.  The ICS embraces the above principles as well as builds both response capability and capacity.  This effort has result in numerous trained responders in Canada that can function at the site management (Incident Command Post) level of an emergency.  The ICS training is expanding Canada’s response capacity though consistency of instruction and training materials that allows competently trained people to be employed any place and time where ICS is being used to manage the emergency





A Consistent Emergency Management System for Canada


Federally written response plans generally have a core look and feel of the internationally proven, and highly adopted Incident Command System (ICS) BUT with a sufficient degree of variations and modifications among federal emergency plans to impede plan training and response delivery.  It has to be recognized that it is people that respond, not plans.  Many of these people may never have met, nor ever have been involved in an emergency situation. This applies whether internally within a federal department’s organization, or externally within the broader response community.  During an emergency is not the time to educate one on the particular emergency management organization, terms, forms, protocols, etc. This training has to be done before hand. The challenge is by who?  No emergency training institution or private provider are going to build training materials related to a plethora of poorly interrelated federal response paradigms and plans.  Let alone, will industry and other jurisdictions have the time to take this training and/or exercise based on such diverse approaches.  The outcome is loss of emergency response capacity in Canada.  Note that building capacity equates to the degree consistency and universality in training instruction and materials.


The mention of the Incident Command System (above) for site (Command Post) and tactical (field) levels of response has extremely positive merits in building both response capability and capacity in Canada and all its response community.  This is a a proven emergency management system with highly standardized organization, forms, terminology and forms.  It is an approach that fosters national and international consistency.  This consistency is of paramount importance to industry that does inter-provincial and international commerce such as pipelines, railway, vehicle and vessel transport of goods.  As such, industries in Canada have predominately accepted the Incident Command System as their choice of emergency planning and incident management.  Many Canadian jurisdictions have also mandated ICS at the site/field levels such as provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.  Consequently, there is a large and expanding response preparedness capacity in Canada founded on ICS that cannot be ignored.  Furthermore, those trained in ICS will probably by quite intolerant to new emergency management systems - especially those that are significant modifications of the ICS.


The training and exercise focus needs to be standardized in Canada to address the two critical questions of every responder: what is my job and who do I report to.  To be effective in delivery of these requirements defines responder capability.  To be able to source such capability anywhere in Canada or international defines response capacity.  The strategic direction of Public Safety Canada should be to foster both aspects.


It should also be recognized that it is the emergency management process not the emergency plan that is most important for successful response delivery.  Few if anyone reads the plan, other than its mission statement.  The federal government now has a multitude or both processes and plans for emergencies.  More profoundly, the plans are so specific to a department’s mandate, they have created institutional silos.  If a particular federal “lead agency” attempts to source additional external responders from other jurisdictions, industry, or even other federal department to bolster their emergency management capability during a major incident, they will be probably find themselves on their own.


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