Gina Wilson
Weather-related Crisis Management
KEN POLE
© 2011 FrontLine Security (Vol 6, No 4)

ICE could be the Inescapable Canadian Element, one that demands cooperation for survival. ICE could also be an Implacable ­Climatic Experience, which presents formidable challenges to governments, industry and individuals – as demonstrated by the 1998 ice storm that essentially shut down major parts of Eastern Canada and the ­northeastern United States.

Actually a concretion of five smaller weather bombs, that storm caused massive damage to electrical infrastructure – coating transmission towers, utility poles and power lines with 3-4 inches of dense ice. The resulting widespread power outages left millions of residences and businesses in the dark for up to a month. A contributing factor in more than 30 deaths, the “Great Ice Storm of 1998” saw the largest Canadian Forces deployment since the Korean War, more than 15,000 personnel at the height of the crisis. In Canada, the estimated cost of dealing with it topped $5.4 billion and insurance claims exceeded $1 billion.

Since then, authorities at all levels, as well as utilities and major manufacturers, have been trying to figure out how to handle the inevitable next major ice storm – or the accelerating incidence of flooding and other weather-related crises – as part of overall disaster readiness.

Gina Wilson, Assistant Deputy Minister (Emergency Management & Regional Operations) at Public Safety Canada, is effectively at the peak of the response ­pyramid. She spoke with FrontLine about lessons learned in recent years.

“I’m accountable within the Government of Canada for coordinating and managing emergencies,” says Wilson, who reports through Deputy Minister William Baker to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. “However, many other federal entities have a role to play as well.” Depending on the ­circumstances, Ottawa can involve not only the Department of National Defence but also the Coast Guard, Transport Canada, the Public Health Agency, and other departments and agencies.

A public servant for 14 years, Wilson has been at Public Safety only four months now, having come from Aboriginal Affairs & Northern Affairs, where her position as Senior ADM (Operations) included emergency management responsibilities. “I’m still pretty new to this job, but I’ve extremely impressed with the significant degree of cooperation among the emergency management community,” she says. “It’s a very collaborative working environment; we’re working toward the same objectives.”

However, she points out that there is more to managing emergencies than simply responding. “There are a lot of activities under way when it comes to prevention, mitigation, preparedness and recovery. Essentially, the role of the federal government is to work on all of these areas.”

Preparedness can include having things as basic as candles, blankets and bottled water stocked at the residential level, while recovery can include help under the auspices of the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA) administered by Public Safety Canada. When response and recovery costs following a natural disaster become unreasonable for provinces and territories to bear on their own, the DFAA provides federal financial support to the other governments, based on established guidelines and a cost-sharing formula.

Response can begin with individuals or households and on to municipal and local authorities that historically manage 90% of emergencies in Canada. “When the emergency goes beyond their [own] capabilities, or there’s more assistance required, then the provincial government would be called in for assistance or would take control,” Wilson explains. “Then, depending on how significant or complex the emergency is, the federal government could be called in. While we function as a leader in many areas, we recognize that emergency management is a shared responsibility that requires a lot of cooperation between various levels of government.”

Provinces and territories are responsible for design and delivery of financial assistance to individuals, small businesses, and municipalities that have been directly affected by a natural disaster. The federal government then cost-shares eligible provincial and territorial expenditures through the DFAA. Since its inception in 1970, the program has seen the cumulative federal payout top $2 billion for incidents ranging from wildfires to floods.

One of the challenges is whether enough resources are allocated. After all, money, equipment and supplies can’t ­simply be parked and possibly go unused for extended periods. “There’s never a guarantee how much will be invested every year,” Wilson says. The annual DFAA envelope, for example, has been $100 million for some years and there are indications that, although the funds haven’t been depleted in recent years (surpluses are returned to the Consolidated Revenue Fund), concern about the costs of coping with natural disasters is prompting the federal government to revisit the adequacy of its DFAA budget. “It’s very difficult to predict this kind of thing,” she confirms. “More tools are being developed to help identify risk, which is a good thing, but there’s obviously no guarantee on predictability.”

In addition to the DFAA funding, the federal government offers other resources, including specialized training and various technologies, such as surveillance and search and rescue with military aircraft, as was required in 2011 for the flooding in Manitoba and Quebec. “That would come up through a request from the province, and there are protocols to request that type of federal assistance,” Wilson notes, adding that there is even a formal template to use in drafting a request. “It would be my role, through the Deputy Minister and the Minister of Public Safety, to trigger the request to the Department of National Defence.”

A key tool in the federal response machinery is the multi-departmental Government Operations Centre (GOC), which works with Public Safety Canada to monitor and assess potential or actual hazards regardless of whether they are deliberate or accidental, natural or human-induced. The GOC, the location of which is guarded, is networked to multiple information and intelligence sources, including law enforcement and news media, as well as intelligence organizations, emergency management organizations and private sector and non-governmental organizations.

“Its role is to support response coordination of events that affect the national interest,” Wilson says. “They offer 24/7 monitoring and reporting, national-level ­situational awareness, risk assessment, and response planning. They keep an eye on all types of things across Canada; they have a significant role in bringing partners together, and they work with anyone who provides information. Personally, I feel safer knowing they’re there.”

Federal resources, however, are not simply at the beck and call of other levels of government, as news reports on a paralyzing snow accumulation in Toronto in January 1999 suggested. Mayor Mel Lastman was lampooned in much of the rest of the country for having “called out” the military. The deployment of 400 troops and heavy vehicles from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ontario, was ordered by the federal government in response to a request from the provincial government, on the mayor’s behalf.

While politicians and scientists continue the climate change debate, the unfortunate truth is, any increase in extreme weather is linked to mounting costs to recover from damages caused by natural disasters.

While snow and ice storms are one potential emergency in the North, the frequency of all natural disasters has actually accelerated in recent years. “There’s a whole range of risks across the country: everything from drought to floods, you name it,” concurs Wilson. This has prompted the federal government to develop and implement what she says are “solid legislative, policy and governance foundations”, coupled with new tools for planning and reporting.

“There is a better understanding of threats such as earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes and so on,” she says. “We’re much better prepared to respond to national incidents and emergencies based on all types of those threats and major events.” That apparently included preparations for the 2010 Olympics in British Columbia and influenza pandemics which have begun to pop up with seemingly increased regularity.

Wilson volunteered that mitigation – reducing the severity of disasters such as ice storms – is an area that needs more attention. “There is some work under way and we are talking to provinces and territories on the development of a cost-shared mitigation program. That’s beginning to emerge and we should hear more about in the years to come.”

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Kenneth Pole is a conributing editor at Frontline Security magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2011

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