RCMP Emergency Operations Centres
Leading a Modern Day Cavalry During Large-Scale Disasters
JACQUELINE CHARTIER
© 2011 FrontLine Security (Vol 6, No 4)

Fortunately, help was on the way. Well over 300 firefighters from more than 30 towns, cities and counties arrived to help battle nature’s inferno. Municipal officials were amazed and relieved. Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee remarked, “It was like the ­cavalry arrived.” More than 100 Alberta RCMP officers were also dispatched as part of the emergency response effort.

Incidents such as the wildfire that partially destroyed the town of Slave Lake, or the recent floods in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec, demonstrate the crucial role of law enforcement during both natural and manmade disasters. In dire and stressful situations – such as those during the Katrina devastation, the Vancouver riots and the recent UK riots – otherwise law-abiding citizens can ­degenerate into violence or chaos. When this occurs, police officers are expected to step up such traditional roles as crowd and traffic control. As Canada’s national police force, the RCMP must also ­perform vital non-traditional roles during large-scale incidents.

For example, RCMP officers are commonly responsible for access control during a crisis. This includes controlling access roads, cordoning off restricted areas and clearing access to emergency vehicles. In some circumstances RCMP members may also be involved with transporting essential goods, medication or even people. During evacuation scenarios, such as occurred in Slave Lake, officers traditionally go door-to-door and warn people of the need to evacuate. An evacuation order transmitted by an RCMP ­officer is sometimes more convincing than from a civilian.

During major forest fires, floods or other disasters, the RCMP emergency operations centre immediately assumes control of its component of the emergency response team. Each of the force’s 15 divisions has its own Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).

The EOC for Alberta’s K Division, for example, is located at RCMP headquarters in Edmonton. Desks with dual screen computers and phones fill the room, and the walls are covered with maps, charts and flat screen monitors. At the helm is Corporal Al Fraser, the composed, efficient, and highly knowledgeable emergency operations program coordinator. This veteran RCMP officer has dedicated 32 years of his life to the force. He has specialized in the emergency management/crisis communication field for over 20 years and was posted to his present position in 2008. Fraser is especially receptive to the emergency and disaster needs of Albertans, having served his entire career in the province.

Recent months have seen a hectic period in Western Canada characterized by many large-scale emergencies and disasters. K Division was frequently called into action throughout the spring and summer of 2011. In May, several fires raged in the forests that cover the northern portion of the province. “Slave Lake was only one fire, we had a number of fires across northern Alberta at that time,” explains Fraser. “We had fires around Fort McMurray as well as Grande Prairie and Grimshaw.”

When floods threatened areas of southern Alberta, it was apparent to emergency planners that they were confronting a logistical challenge. “We had flood warnings for Calgary and southern Alberta so we had to be careful that we didn’t take all the physical resources we had in those areas up into the fire area because we didn’t know if we were going to have floods [elsewhere].” He noted that the province was very involved, and he spent a lot of time with the provincial emergency centre during these crises.

Two RCMP officers (a sergeant and corporal), work fulltime in the RCMP emergency operations centre in Edmonton. They are responsible for action and readiness, but are also involved in emergency planning and business continuity duties. The number of personnel will increase dramatically during large-scale emergencies. For example, the centre was responsible for food, lodgings and supplies for the approximately 100 RCMP members deployed to the Slave Lake response needs. This required extra manpower in the EOC.

“In the case of a terrorist attack in Alberta,” alludes Taylor, “other experts would be brought into the RCMP emergency operations centre to assist with the Incident Command System. We would have subject experts [in] operations, planning, logistics and finance to assist us,” he explains. “Depending on the level of emergency, we would provide information to the province, and it might end up going through channels to Ottawa.”

Invariably, when the RCMP participates in a major natural ­disaster or crisis event, it becomes part of an emergency relief team. During certain crises, the police might be the lead agency, at other times public works may be in charge, or fire services may take the lead. Successful emergency management requires a well-orchestrated and collaboration of all public safety agencies involved.

In a hostage-taking incident, for example, a police command structure would automatically step into the lead.

The lead on other incidents can be more complex, such as the response to the Slave Lake fire. In this case, the lead responsibilities “went back and forth,” explains Al Fraser. “First it was the police who were in charge of the evacuation and for patrolling the highway in and out of the town. Once the civilians were evacuated, command switched back to the firefighters and to the municipal authorities. The police were still there in that emergency, of course, providing check points and ensuring that the people who where in the area were supposed to be there.”

Virtually every Canadian municipality has a written plan for dealing with a large-scale disaster situation. The municipal emergency operation centre in smaller communities is usually the town hall, the fire hall, or another building. In the larger centres, Calgary, Edmonton or Lethbridge, for example, there is usually a separate building altogether set up as an emergency operations centre. The centre functions as a gathering place. Each centre has a manager to ensure the computer equipment and telephones are working, as should everything else that a facility manager deals with in terms of the actual setup and layout.

Depending on the type of emergency, it may require specific subject matter experts. For example, in the case of a gas leak, there would be a technical expert from the gas company; if the evacuees need to be sheltered in busses, someone from public transit might be there; or if there was a major leak of water or oil,  someone with environmental know-how would be sought. The fire department would definitely be called in the case of a natural gas leak. Finally, police officers would be required to cordon off and secure the area.

Responding to an Incident
RCMP officers are typically trained to follow procedures of the ICS (Incident Command System). The ICS is a systematic tool used for the command, control, and coordination of emergency response. An ICS is based upon a flexible, scalable response organization providing a common framework within which people can work together effectively. Individuals may be drawn from multiple agencies that do not routinely work together, and ICS is designed to give standard response and operation procedures to reduce the problems and potential for miscommunication on such incidents.

ICS has been summarized as a “first-on-scene” structure, where the first responder to a scene has charge of the scene until the incident has been declared resolved, a more qualified responder arrives on scene and receives command, or the incident commander appoints another individual incident commander. In small communities an RCMP member may be the first person on site and be compelled to make the initial assessment of the situation and decide how to approach the incident.

To emergency specialists such as Al Fraser, the Incident ­Command System is second nature. The major areas are operations, planning, logistics and finance. “Sometimes you might have to start buying or renting pieces of equipment to help you deal with the ­particular situation. The finance people are the ones who will keep tabs on that and keep track of that,” he says. “Often it will take ­several days to get an emergency situation under control, for example a forest fire or flood. This is when operation planning needs to schedule police officers and other emergency workers to come in for various shifts.” The “Operations Planning” group puts together the attack plan and prioritizes what is to be done first.

Overseeing all of these basic areas is the incident commander. “That person orchestrates everything, making sure everyone is on the same page and going in the right direction,” explains Fraser. “That is the person who, for the most part, will meet with municipal authorities, your mayor and council, and ultimately the person who will be talking to the provincial government and keeping the provincial operation centre informed as to what is taking place.”

When a wild fire endangers a town or large-scale flooding occurs, the RCMP divisional emergency operations centre will ­usually work closely with the provincial authority in charge of dealing with such situations. In Alberta, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) leads the coordination, collaboration and cooperation of all organizations involved in dealing with ­disasters and emergencies. These organizations include government, industry, municipalities and first responders.

The AEMA provides training to municipalities, government officials and different agencies. They offer formal training in emergency response and the Incident Command System method of dealing with emergencies. “The province won’t necessarily take the lead, but they will participate at the strategic level,” Fraser emphasizes. “If you need more fire trucks, for example, they put out that call across the province to see who out there has fire trucks available. They obviously have a farther reach when it comes to equipment and personnel.”

For ordinary citizens caught in a disaster scenario, their standard reaction is justifiably of gratitude and amazement toward the RCMP and other responders. “I wouldn’t have thought we’d get the response we did,” Slave Lake Reeve Denny Garratt told a local reporter in the days following the devastating fire. “I was amazed and actually overjoyed to see them.”

As Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee stated, “We couldn’t have done it without them … there’s no way. To have fresh crews come in and take over, it was like the cavalry.”

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Jaqueline Chartier, a FrontLine correspondent, is based in Calgary.
© FrontLine Security 2011

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