Canada Must Invest in a National Civilian Response Unit

An Interview with Josh Bowen

What are some important lessons you have taken away from your involvement in various disaster response initiatives? What are some of the challenges inherent in preparing a disaster response, given the unpredictability of extreme weather events?

I spent thirteen years in the Canadian Armed Forces. During that time, I was primarily with the infantry but eventually ended up leading domestic disaster response operation planning for Joint Task Force West. I deployed on four different domestic operations—one of them as the CAF liaison to the province of Alberta for the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. I am faculty in the disaster emergency management programme at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.  

The CAF is a force of last resort for when there is no other asset or capability available to address a problem. When something major happens, the CAF gets called in. That is what we have seen in BC, and in Newfoundland in late 2021. These events have prompted the question of whether it is appropriate to call on the CAF all the time. The answer is that the military will always be there to support Canadians in their time of need—natural disaster or armed conflict—that is its primary role. Nonetheless, we need to develop a civilian capacity to be able to respond instead. 

When I was serving, we did not receive training on how to deal with natural disasters, but we were organized, we had integral communications support, mobility support, logistical sustainment support, and we had the organized labour to respond. We were trained on how to fill sandbags, build sandbanks, and develop an organized response, which made us incredibly useful to the civilian authority. What we need is a capability to be able to respond when things go sideways, so that we are not using that “last resort” first.

Right now, the military is the only capability that we have, that is a national institution that provides support in times of need. There are more frequent, more severe, and wider-reaching natural disasters occurring. We will need an additional capability to respond to those disasters. We cannot always look to the CAF for support. Rather than drawing down on that capacity, we need to build additional capacity to support people at home in the event of a natural disaster.  

Several commentators have suggested that domestic operations negatively impact the CAF’s force generation, operational readiness, and training—potentially leaving a gap in the country’s disaster management system. How can this be mitigated?

Holistically, we need to focus on mitigation. Climate change is having a massive impact on the scale, severity, and frequency of natural disasters—we need to stay ahead of the curve. We need to invest in our abilities to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. We should not have the same flood pattern, on the same highway in BC in 1990, and again, thirty-one years later. We need smarter infrastructure, and we need to be smarter.

We need to have a civilian capability we can deploy when needed. Right now, across the country, there are a series of heavy urban search and rescue teams. When a building collapses, we provide those capabilities, but that is a very specific skill set. What we need for things like the disaster that unfolded in BC and Newfoundland is the ability to deploy people and assets to protect lives, protect property, protect the environment, and protect the economy. 

The Americans have incident management teams that were initially deployed to fight wildfires—that was the genesis for building All-Hazard Incident Management teams. They recognized the need for that capability moving forward and provided logistical support, command, and control, and organizational and communications capabilities. The Americans have built this system out across the country. We are starting to see some of that in Canada. 

We can also look to Germany, which developed the THW (Technisches Hilfswerkin the 1950s. This is a network of eighty thousand volunteers spread out across almost seven hundred locations across Germany, with a national training centre. Germany can respond and support, whether it be search and rescue, building sandbag berms, or reinforcing dikes. That capability is there, and it is civilian. Canada needs to figure out how to build a similar capability so that we do not consistently need to rely on our “last resort” option.

Do you see avenues of collaboration and coordination between the Canadian Forces and a potential Canadian civilian Disaster response force?

There should be collaboration and coordination. Alberta, for example, has five regional incident management teams which are still small, but able to coordinate and support the organizational level response, which has already been used during fires and floods.

We could build out a civilian capacity like what has been achieved in Germany to supplement our limited pool of full-time response cadre with a distributed network of supporting civilians. 

Right now, many organizations are doing similar work, including the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, St. John’s Ambulance, Team Rubicon, and others. We need a coordinated, federally supported, federally funded model to encourage people to help. People do want to volunteer. People want to help, so we need to provide support for those that do. How can we ensure if they are part of this Canadian version of the THW, that they are protected for their jobs, for example? How do we ensure that their employer is supported to make sure that their job is still there when they come back?

What kind of infrastructure is required to build resilience in the face of more frequent climate change-related disasters?

We have many effective avenues we can explore that we know will mitigate risk. If we look at most of the southern states, it is now required by law to have hurricane ties on roofs so that roofs do not fly off. This is a cheap investment that can save your roof in a category five hurricane.

The question is how can we build better? For example, building larger, better-reinforced culverts will allow more water through, to prevent bridges and roads from washing out. We should not continue building on flood plains, we can look at the type of soil, the type of environment that we are in, and build our communities in a way that does not expose them to unnecessary additional risk.

We can look at implementing fire breaks outside of communities so that wildfires cannot spread in those communities as easily. Even something like a sub-pump in your basement reduces your risk of flooding if you live in a high-water table area or if your risk of overland flooding is significant. There is much we can do and a lot of this is already coming to the fore. What is especially important now is the question of how we adapt the infrastructure that we have to meet the requirements that it will face with consistent climate change.

Josh Bowen has been at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) since 2017, where he is currently faculty in the Disaster and Emergency Management program and teaches select crisis leadership courses for NAIT’s Centre for Applied Disaster and Emergency Management. Josh is also serving as a Subject Matter Expert supporting Public Safety Canada’s National Risk Profile initiative and Environment and Climate Change Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy. Before joining NAIT, Josh served 13 years in the Canadian Armed Forces as an Infantry Officer and was directly involved in five domestic disaster response operations.