Emergency management framework for Canada does not consider continuity

  • 18 Oct 2017
  • Tor,  Patrick

In May, Canada’s Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Emergency Management unveiled an updated version of An Emergency Management Framework for Canada. The Framework considers the impacts of climate change and reinforces the need for all areas of society to collaborate on enhanced resilience. However, the Framework ignores the importance of ensuring continuity of government operations in circumstances of crisis and disaster. 

With Canada’s overall approach to emergency preparedness defined by collaboration at all levels, the Framework does not consider that a failure in operations at one level might impact the overall response. The next generation of the Framework should consider more closely the need to integrate Federal/Provincial/Territorial business continuity planning while determining how to extend continuity planning to those other vital partners at the local level upon which much of our prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery capacity is based.

The Framework acknowledges that most emergencies in Canada are local in nature and are managed by municipalities and communities, or at the provincial or territorial level. It goes on to say that strengthening resilience to hazards and disasters requires contributions from all-of-society and that these events could transcend geographic boundaries to challenge FPT emergency management, including potential responses. 

One of the standard business continuity strategies is that of transference – essentially transferring a risk (or portion thereof) to a third party. The Framework is a good instance of transference where multiple partners take a share in mitigating and responding to a crisis. The weakness of the current Framework is that effective mitigation and response is contingent on operational capacity and continuity at all levels. Yet for a significant portion of the critical partners, no business continuity plans exist at all.

All municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador were required to have an up to date emergency management plan in place by May 2012. In supporting communities and regions prepare emergency plans in advance of this deadline, it occurred to us that standard EM planning templates did not consider continuity of municipal operations as a specific hazard. The all hazards approach did not seem to extend to a disruption of the municipal government itself. The four pillars on which the Framework is based including Prevention and Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery is grounded in a robust local response. 

But what happened if the response capacity of any of these partners, particularly at the local level, is impacted by the very disaster they are charged with responding to? What if the extent of the hazard or the disaster impacts not just the broader community from an emergency management perspective but the continuity of operations of the primary responder, say at the municipal level or across multiple local governments in an impacted area? How do you provide vital public services at the municipal level when the water treatment plant has been destroyed by a forest fire? Or if critical infrastructure such as telecommunication fails, on which the overall response is dependent? Or when a storm surge has washed out the only bridge linking one side of a community to the other and half the town is without access to emergency response? How does a provincial government support disaster response when it is facing demands from multiple local governments and regions at once, demands that disrupt its overall capacity and operations? These are not just emergency management but business continuity challenges.

While resilience is considered within the Framework, until continuity of operations is specifically addressed, and FPT ministers act to extend effective business continuity planning to local, regional and other partners, Canada’s capacity to respond to disaster will be hampered. For an emergency framework that is reliant on local capacity to be effective, organizational resilience and continuity must become a priority for all partners. 

Pat Curran and Tor Fosnæs, Associates
Resilient Business Continuity Management Incorporated
St. John’s, Newfoundland

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