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Why is the federal government looking to create a national emergency agency?

The federal government is looking at creating some kind of national disaster response agency in the face of an unusually intense and destructive start to the wildfire season across the country.
Conair’s Dash 8-400AT is battling forest fires all across the continent this summer. The federal government is investigating the creation of a national emergency agency.(Steve Whitby photo)

The federal government is looking at creating some kind of national disaster response agency in the face of an unusually intense and destructive start to the wildfire season across the country.

At the moment, federal departments including Emergency Preparedness, Public Safety and National Defence coordinate when there is a request for help from one of the provinces or territories after a major event like a flood, hurricane or wildfire.

Here’s a look at what a national emergency agency could consist of, and how it would be different from what’s already in place.

What happens right now during an emergency in Canada?

The federal government used to get between five and 10 formal requests for assistance from the provinces and territories each year.

Between March 2020 and October 2022, there were more than 200 calls ranging from hurricanes, floods and fires to helping in care homes during COVID-19. About 157 of those calls involved the military.

The government operations centre in the Department of Public Safety is the main agency that leads the response.

Director-general Deryck Trehearne told a House of Commons committee last fall that there’s a rigorous check whenever a province or territory asks for military help.

“Things we would look at, for instance, are regional capacity, commercial options and other federal sources. We discuss a number of criteria with the province or territory before we get to a situation of deploying the (Canadian Armed Forces),” he said in early October.

The government also gets help from organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Way to coordinate things like fundraising and distribution of emergency funding, for example.

Its Disaster Financial Assistance Program helps individuals and municipalities get the money they need to rebuild and recover from natural disasters.

Trehearne said he thinks Canada has a good system for responding to emergencies, though he noted the “multiple levels of responsibility” with the provinces and local municipalities make things complicated.

Can’t governments just keep calling on the military?

The Canadian Armed Forces have immediate response units that are activated to respond to disasters.

But the chief of the defence staff, Gen. Wayne Eyre, has made no secret of the fact that he would like the Canadian Armed Forces to get fewer domestic calls for help — especially while it’s dealing with a personnel crisis.

Members responding to wildfires need to get special firefighting training, which takes up critical time in an emergency.

Each province and territory has different certifications for wildland firefighting, and there is no basic, across-the-board training available for military members, so members only get trained when they’re being deployed.

Soldiers don’t actually put out wildfire flames, and they don’t have firefighting gear. The people deployed to fire zones in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia are there to help stop the spread of fires once the flames have abated, put out hot spots and clean up.

About 100 soldiers have been trained at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick and are standing by to help in Nova Scotia, but they haven’t been able to help yet and are waiting for tasks. A small number of ignition specialists is helping to prevent the fires from flaring up.

The Canadian Armed Forces has about 370 trained firefighters across the country. Some of them help with wildfires, but they must also remain on standby in case of emergencies on their local base or wing.

What do other countries do?

Perhaps the best-known example of a national disaster assistance organization is the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA, as it’s known, is responsible for preparing for, preventing, responding to and recovering from major incidents such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters. It runs a national response coordination centre, which organizes federal support for major disasters and can deploy teams of doctors and nurses to disaster sites.

Its workforce swells to more than 50,000 people in a disaster.

Australia also has a National Emergency Management Agency, which was created “in the face of devastating fires and floods” to help respond to and recover from disasters, according to the agency’s website.

Its national aerial firefighting centre, formed in 2003, shares specialized aircraft between states to ensure they have the resources needed without having to own and maintain the expensive equipment.

The agency has “round-the-clock all-hazards monitoring” and coordinates the operations for anything from flooding and fires to supply chain disruptions, cyber attacks and infrastructure outages.

It also funds programs to prepare for and prevent disasters. The agency notes that disasters cost an average of $38 billion Australian each year and that cost is projected to nearly double by 2060.

What does the federal government want?

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair has been asked if the country needs a national firefighting service. He said Wednesday that because there are more frequent and more severe emergencies, responding governments need to be more agile.

“There’s a need in all of the provinces and territories, in every part of the country for additional firefighting resources,” he said.

He noted that Natural Resources Canada is training 1,000 new firefighters and is buying more equipment. And while the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre co-ordinates firefighting resources across provinces and with other countries, Blair said there is a need for more water bombers, for example.

The military’s main role in a disaster is to help local officials with logistics, planning and manpower.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Armed Forces members were doing “everything from delivering food and supplies to people in Minganie, Quebec, to providing logistic support for waterbombers at CFB Greenwood.”

Given what Eyre has said in the past about his desire to make the Armed Forces the call of last resort in an emergency, it’s possible that a new centralized federal emergency agency could be made responsible for planning and logistics.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press