Arctic emergency responders call for resources, more focus on northerners
National report highlights priorities for Arctic communities
Emergency measures planning for northern Canada must focus on the safety, training, and equipment needs of people who live in the region, where residents are exposed to ever-increasing risks of natural disasters, violent weather, and health emergencies, a national report says.
Northern Canada’s emergency measures organizations delivered this message to the country’s federal and territorial governments March 31, in a national report on Arctic emergency preparedness.
“Despite the best efforts of volunteers, who form the backbone of emergency response in the North, there are still deficiencies in the system caused by lack of tools, plans, and training that are putting lives at risk,” said Sara French in a news release.
French is director of the Toronto-based Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program, which issued the report.
“This risk and severity of emergencies will only increase with climate change and intensified activity in the region,” she said.
The Munk-Gordon report highlights seven recommendations to improve emergency preparedness across Canada’s north.
Drawn from roundtable meetings with emergency measures organizations in each of the three territories late last year, the Arctic security program concluded with this list of priorities, drafted at a national roundtable in February, that:
1. National authorities should put priority on the needs of northern residents, “as opposed to focusing exclusively on visitors to the region.”
2. The national Joint Emergency Preparedness Plan “should be reinstated to full capacity,” the report said. The federal government cut funding from the plan in 2012. This resulted in a 50 per cent loss of funds for emergency management in Nunavut, where the territorial government “is now trying to make up for the difference.”
Once restored, territorial governments “should make training available and encourage skill development among community members and volunteer responders,” the report said.
This should include training in:
• traditional and local knowledge for newcomers;
• first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation;
• communication systems, mapping, GPS, and ground search and rescue;
• operation of boats, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and small engine mechanics; and,
• technical rescue skills on water, snow and ice, and environmental response.
3. Training exchanges should include the sharing of traditional knowledge with territorial and federal officials. Government officials should also offer training in indigenous languages.
4. Communities should create their own emergency plans based on local realities.
5. Federal search and rescue assets, such as military planes and other aircraft, should be located in Yellowknife, where they are “closer to the communities they serve.”
6. Territorial and aboriginal organizations should make SPOT (personal satellite tracking devices) available to all community members, as is the case in Nunavut. These should ideally be “two-way” communications devices that allow the user “to become a part of the response network,” the report said.
7. Governments should initiate co-operative relationships with the United States, such as between the state of Alaska and Yukon territory, and between the coast guards of each country.
The recommendations address many weaknesses in Nunavut’s search and rescue and emergency preparedness.
Ed Zebedee, director of protection services for the Government of Nunavut, which oversees emergency preparedness for the territory, has said search and rescue incidents in the territory have been increasing by 10 to 15 per cent a year since about 2006.
Despite this, the federal government went ahead with funding cuts to the national Joint Emergency Preparedness Plan in 2012, something that has had a “huge impact” on his small unit, Zebedee said in a recent presentation to Baffin mayors.
The territorial government in now trying to make up for the difference, he said.
It has a lot of ground to cover, according to the Munk-Gordon report, which says that Nunavut’s emergency responders are faced with:
• a lack of training opportunities;
• “limited availability” of medical facilities;
• weak infrastructure; and,
• an inferior road system, “combined with short runways that limit the type of aircraft that can access some of the communities.”
Zebedee said his department is seeking to fill these gaps with new programs and funding.
In difficult searches, his department calls on Joint Search and Rescue Coordination Centres, run by the armed forces, to get help from aircraft based in Halifax, Trenton, Ont., or Winnipeg.
A northern station, such as in Yellowknife, could help “for at least a six-week period, when we have most of our searches — which is in the spring,” Zebedee said.
Zebedee has also called for more Canadian Coast Guard auxiliaries in Nunavut to supplement rescue efforts in Arctic waters during the ice-free season.
Nunavut is served by only five Coast Guard vessels between spring and fall.
The Munk-Gordon report adds to a report on federal search and rescue operations released in April 2013 by Auditor General of Canada, which recommended upgrades to aircraft and training to keep pace with growing needs across the country, particularly in northern Canada.