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How Emergency Prepardness Died In Canada

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When an 8-storey building collapsed in Bangladesh in April killing more than 1,100 garment workers, the rescue response was agonizingly slow.

Canadians watched their TV screens in disbelief as Bangladeshi friends and relatives struggled to move rubble in search of their loved ones - work that would have fallen into the hands of capable and well-equipped rescue teams in Canada.

So one would hope.

Canadians should be aware, however, that in an era when all of us are increasingly prone to both natural and man-made disasters, the federal government has discontinued funding to Canada's primary disaster relief agency.

Federal funding to the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) was withdrawn at the end of March, leaving the provinces and municipalities to try to prepare for potential disasters on their own.

The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence published one report in 2004 and another in 2008 imploring the federal government to take a stronger leadership role in assuring timely and effective disaster relief across the country.

The 2008 recommendations grew out of an exhaustive survey of 100 Canadian municipalities, where first responders told us there were significant weaknesses in their capacity to mount rescue efforts in their own communities, and to assist rescue efforts in other municipalities and provinces.

But instead of bolstering and harmonizing Canada's disaster relief capacity, in recent years, the federal government has been chipping away at its foundation. In March it finally walked away from its responsibility to help Canadians prepare for national disasters, choosing to restrict itself to writing cheques after the damage is done.

The federal funding that was cut off was crucial to developing programs like Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR), based in Vancouver, Calgary, St. Boniface, Toronto and Halifax. There should be one in Quebec too, but there isn't.

The teams employ electronic equipment and trained dogs to locate and get to people trapped in collapsed structures. They help in damage assessment to stimulate quick relief. They move quickly and efficiently, travelling with their own food and camping facilities so they don't burden stretched resources in a disaster area.

Public Safety Canada's argument that the $22.5 million that the federal government has invested in HUSAR since September 11, 2001 has left the program in good shape doesn't wash. HUSAR's first responders are heavily dependent on modern, reliable equipment, and much of the equipment they have now is aging and should already have been replaced.

The argument that disaster relief is the responsibility of local governments is a cop-out. All cities and provinces do not have the financial wherewithal to support the kind of protection that every Canadian deserves. The first responsibility of any national government is the physical safety of its citizens.

The government of Alberta -- where HUSAR teams from both Calgary and Vancouver helped search for endangered occupants of buildings during the recent flood -- has responded to the federal cut by coming up with a one-time $400,000 grant to the Calgary HUSAR, to begin transforming it from its mandate as a regional response team to what one Alberta official has said publicly will be "a provincial response team. "

Good for the government of Alberta for injecting funds following Ottawa's withdrawal, but what a step backward in terms of Calgary HUSAR's mandate. HUSAR teams were never meant to be confined to the province in which they are located. If there were, there would be ten of them.

Is emergency preparedness going to be a luxury item reserved for for cities or provinces that can afford it? Or a necessity for every vulnerable Canadian in every province?

No HUSAR team has yet shut down in the absence of funding. But most of them are on the verge of collapse. HUSAR leaders are on record as asking the federal government for $400,000 each, annually, to keep their systems going.

We're talking peanuts here. The price of a house. Pay for five houses and you help protect five families. Pay the equivalent for each of the five HUSAR teams and you help protect one great big Canadian family sprawled across the country.

That's what national governments are supposed to do -- take prudent steps to protect its citizens. This government should get back to doing that.

[Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca]

*This op-ed originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and the Edmonton Journal - July 12, 2013

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