The emergence of Public Safety Canada in 2003 marked a critical point in the relationship between Emergency Management and Critical Infrastructure (CI). Chief among these was the absorption of Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness (OCIPEP) into the realm of public safety and security. Through moving this office from National Defence squarely within the purview of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we began to see the convergence of all-hazards planning and national civil preparedness for physical structures as well as financial, energy, telecommunications and even government services.

It was initially the ripple effects of 9/11 which spurred these actions, along with a clear acknowledgement of the increasingly complex risk environment, and a large amount of corresponding legislation. However, it was the subsequent years and the waning of Jean Chrétien’s administration which gave rise to a far deeper acknowledgement; Canada’s vulnerability was, and remains, fundamentally impacted by a) increases in extreme weather events (caused by climate change), b) aging infrastructure, and c) our reliance on advanced technologies (and reliance on those aforementioned infrastructures). In a report titled “Threats to Canada’s Critical Infrastructure” dated March 2003, Public Safety Canada put into words a realisation with potentially far-reaching impact:

“The increased urbanization of Canadian communities, and the concomitant need for additional vital, uninterrupted, services for Canada’s bourgeoning cities raises the possibility that our critical infrastructure is more vulnerable than ever.”

A year later, the federal government proposed the creation of a ‘National Critical Infrastructure Protection Strategy’.

If we fast forward 5 years to 2009, when the senate committee thought fit to mention the strategy in its document titled ‘Emergency Management in Canada; How the fine arts of bafflegab and procrastination hobble the people who will be trying to save you when things get really bad…’ (not a made up title!), they included this informative image regarding the project:

Clearly, the sudden and important revelation of 2003 took a back seat, and rapidly fizzled into the background noise of parliament hill.


Interestingly, in the National Strategy for critical infrastructure primer which closely followed the aforementioned report, the federal government highlighted that the eventual end-product of the initiative would focus on the following:

“…appropriate combination of security measures… business continuity practices … and emergency management planning to ensure adequate response procedures are in place to deal with unforeseen disruptions and natural disasters.”

 While this is a useful sentiment, the absence of a well-formed national strategy has left municipalities, provinces and territories across Canada to develop their own programs, collaborations, initiatives and approaches to EM. While these are generally comprehensive, effective programs specifically tailored to meet the particular needs of each community, most focus on the more pressing and immediate concerns such as Emergency Social Services (ESS), scheduled event planning, and public awareness and lack the resources to adequately address issues which cross jurisdictional boundaries to the federal scale.

What still remains is what I can only refer to as the elephant in the room; our aging critical infrastructure.

A recent quote from prominent writer Kathryn Schultz, featured recently in the New Yorker, comes to mind: “How can [society] being to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?” how indeed. While she is referring to more here than just physical infrastructure, she is entirely accurate in her assessment of the issues we face being the unfortunate result of our historical context.

So how then, do we move forward in the face of this reality? In the absence of a national CI strategy, how are municipalities supposed to address issues pertaining to the myriad of private, public, local, provincial and federal assets, all with varying degrees of access, vulnerability and control? It’s an Emergency Management nightmare at the best of times to even comprehend the risk to our Critical Infrastructure, let alone the potential scale of the subsequent impact on communities which rely on it. My observation has been that most identify the hazards and develop a risk profile, but struggle to move beyond this step.

I suspect that these challenges may remain even beyond the development of the much anticipated Critical Infrastructure Strategy – such is often the nature of wide-reaching federal strategy (though clearly one would hope it’s effective in addressing some of the most critical infrastructure vulnerabilities). However, I would suggest that there are ways to manage the effects of damage to CI, despite the aforementioned challenges to developing a four-pillar approach. While it is perhaps against our better judgement as Emergency Managers to focus purely on response/recovery activities, Damage Assessment programs can provide some quick wins in this regard.

Many municipalities in British Columbia, with lessons learned from experienced cities such as Christchurch, have begun to develop comprehensive Rapid Damage Assessment (RDA) programs in an effort to streamline response and recovery efforts. Primarily, these programs create a platform for engagement of personnel as subject matter experts, public participation, and serve to integrate existing internal emergency response efforts with formal EM efforts. In this way, they inadvertently touch on many important goals of EM; engagement, public education, and business continuity to name a few.

A municipality with an RDA program is likely to have a more intimate understanding of the disaster or emergency at hand, in a timelier manner, and with greater clarity across departments and agencies than one without. It is also undoubtedly in a better position to allocate precious municipal resources and surge capacity to the most vulnerable and impacted areas of the community.

Consider ‘lifeline services’ provided by your municipality and any associated boards and agencies. Water and sanitary systems are some of the most important and susceptible to damage, but also fall firmly in the jurisdiction of municipal or regional bylaws and in-house expertise. The same can be said for building and transportation infrastructure which is often enforced or managed by municipal workers. Engaging your building, public works and engineering departments can be the first step in creating a response strategy which addresses both immediate damage, and the broader Emergency Management goals, including situational awareness and prioritisation of response efforts.

However, I would also argue that it is not enough to simply expect municipalities to develop RDA programs, especially considering that many EM programs are already stretched beyond their means. I have previously referred to the wealth of knowledge which exists elsewhere in Canada and beyond, and I firmly believe that there are ways to share and benefit from this as a community of EM professionals. If we cannot have a National CI strategy, we should at least be considering the development of a platform which enables us to share knowledge pertaining to CI risk management and Damage Assessment initiatives.

As I think about this issue I am constantly reminded of the words of Naomi Klein in her 2009 novel ‘Shock Doctrine’

“Public infrastructure around the world is facing unprecedented stress, with hurricanes, cyclones, floods and forest fires all increasing in frequency and intensity. It’s easy to imagine a future in which growing numbers of cities have their frail and long-neglected infrastructures knocked out by disaster”

 If we are to weather the oncoming storm, we will need a platform which reaches beyond simply highlighting GIS solutions or digital tools to the development of a national framework for comprehensive Damage Assessment, one which includes training, measurement metrics, tactics, program development tools and more. Integrating our collective understanding of CI risk assessment and Damage Assessment is critical as we begin to understand how we will manage the extraordinary problem we now face.

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