Partnerships to Emergency Preparedness
Dec 15, 2008

Natural and man-made disasters don’t recognize political boundaries; the path of a radiological plume will not respect a port of entry. Border communities share many of the same concerns, but there are also some unique conditions that require innovative initiatives from multiple partners. Increased security requirements have heightened ­tensions at the borders that prior to 9/11/01 were easily resolved with local cooperation. At every level of ­government, the United States, Mexico, and Canada struggle to determine acceptable levels of disaster preparedness between border communities.  ­

Congress, for example, passed Joint Resolution S.J. RES. 13, granting its consent to the International Emergency Manage­ment Assist­ance MOU (Memorandum of Understanding). This provides a mutual assistance compact between the states of Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut and the Provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. This pact offers the possibility of assistance when asked by the affected jurisdiction(s) during natural or man-made disasters, as well as technological hazards or civil emergency aspects of resource shortages. This document allows for inter-jurisdictional planning, gap analysis, procedural development and review, training, testing, recognition of licenses and permits, and procedures for reimbursement – making it a viable umbrella framework that can be supported by respective governments for application at each border venue.

Such a framework should be available to all of the border states and provinces throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada, thus providing each border community the authority to customize within the framework to best suit their specific needs. States would then have flexibility – within Federal parameters and endorsed by both governments – so that policies can be molded for each area, as dictated by the region.

The California/Mexico border has ­different concerns than, for instance, Washington/Canada, which again has ­different concerns than Texas/Mexico, and so on. By having a basic structure that includes core responsibilities, border communities can prepare for crossborder ­emergencies in a manner that establishes a modicum of political and practical unity.

There is no doubt that each government desires to “do the right thing” when it comes to emergency preparedness and response. The struggle becomes the definition of “the right thing.”

Not all border communities are able or willing to agree with each other on their respective responsibilities regarding humanitarian or other aspects of emergency ­preparedness and response. Because of this, each community, on both sides of the border, should have ample flexibility to generate policies and procedures that best serve their populations while adhering to basic national tenets.

Emergency preparedness is an essential element to a successful response. Planning, training, and exercising (coordinated under an endorsed framework by each government) is a monumental first step in achieving the dialogue necessary to address policy and procedural questions prior to a catastrophic incident.

Key Questions
Important questions in such discussions should include: what is the role of the first responder during a catastrophic incident that has created panic on both sides of the border? Does local law enforcement have a role at the port of entry? Weapons are prohibited entry into the southern border; is there an expectation of assistance without protection? Can response vehicles travel between the ports of entry uninhibited, or do they need to meet certain requirements? Are crossborder medical credentials recognized during such an event? What about controls for medical supplies such as blood and medicines? What will be the documentation requirements between countries for first responders? What will documentation requirements be for those fleeing danger, or a perceived threat of danger? Is there an obligation to address the emergency needs (food, medical, shelter) of ­citizens first before allowing others to seek services?    Or the more general: does it make a difference? And, who makes that decision?

Communications is another area where there is little standardization in crossborder practices. Does the cost to adjust systems to become interoperable outweigh the benefit? Can shared protocols be used? Is it possible, or desirable, to have a shared common op­erating picture with each other? How much situational awareness is appropriate? What information can and should be shared?

In the event of a public health or other emergency, either natural or man-made, the possibility of thousands of frenzied people flooding to the borders is very real. Some may be contaminated and/or injured. Is crossing the border an acceptable evacuation route? Who will be allowed to cross? Will there be any change in documentation requirements? If decontamination is necessary, how and to whom will those services be provided? People will be looking for family members who are on opposite sides of the border that day, demanding reunification. What basic policies are in place to address such guaranteed outcomes?

Depending on the event, there could be miles of motorized or foot traffic, hindering or stopping the flow of emergency support into these border communities. Without a flexible approach to crossborder preparedness that is both known and ­practiced, there is increased risk of escalating the crisis.

Private Sector Role
The private sector has an important role in crossborder emergency preparedness as well. Critical infrastructures are not the same internationally, so early coordination and cooperation is essential for the continuity of services and protection of key resources. Cooperative co-development of continuity plans and prior agreement on roles and responsibilities will allow the private sector to be that much ­further ahead when a catastrophic incident impacts both sides of the border.

Policy Provides a Baseline
Crossborder emergency preparedness policy is inconsistent at best, nonexistent at worst. Federal policy framework should be developed to apply a uniform baseline to crossborder emergency response to natural or man-made disasters (including a nuclear event, earthquake, or pandemic). Such a baseline policy must be flexible enough, while maintaining some degree of con­sistency, to allow border communities to ­continue their efforts to assist during ­crossborder emergencies.

In order to assist in a catastrophic event, border communities, as well as states, provinces, and national governments must be able to identify needs, roles, and how laws can be changed, created, and barriers dropped to enable successful crossborder planning, training, exercising, information sharing, and communications.

Jill Olen is the CEO of The Olen Group, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in public safety and homeland security issues.
© FrontLine Security 2008