Our lack of preparedness is the emergency
Thomas S. Axworthy
Friday, November 08, 2002
In June, 2001, Operation Dark Winter began in Oklahoma City: Maintenance workers carrying plant sprayers strolled into a shopping mall, worked on the plants, and then vanished. A few days later, 20 civilians came down with smallpox. Within a week, the disease had spread to 15 states, Canada, Mexico and Britain. Within three months, three million people had caught the disease and one million people were dead.
Three months before Sept. 11, Operation Dark Winter, a U.S. government simulation exercise, proved conclusively how ill-prepared North America was to deal with a biological weapons attack. Last week, 18 months after the exercise and a year after terrorists had actually attacked the United States, the U.S. Department of Health reported that only one state -- Florida -- was fully prepared to deploy medicines and vaccines against a biological strike. Most states had not yet filed plans for vaccinating their populations in case of attack, most regions had not yet stockpiled additional emergency beds, and many states had not yet figured out how they would transport needed vaccines.
This frightening audit comes after the U.S. government has stockpiled vaccine and allocated US$1.1-billion to help cities and states improve communication systems, upgrade labs and build up public health systems. If the United States is still so unprepared for bioterrorism after Sept. 11, what pray tell is the situation in Canada?
No one really knows, because unlike the United States, we do not have, nor have we much debated, the need for a national security policy. But if the United States is so disorganized, double the American confusion, square it and cube it, and only then will we begin to comprehend how utterly unprepared Canada is for a major chemical, biological, or nuclear disaster.
Members of a possible terrorist cell, for example, were recently arrested in Buffalo. If Buffalo ever had an outbreak of anthrax or smallpox, it would only be hours before the disease spread to the Niagara peninsula and then Toronto. The first responders to such a crisis would be local health officials, but a January, 2002, submission by Dr. Basrur, a Toronto health officer to the Senate committee on defence reported that local officials are "on the margins of federal emergency planning," while local emergency plans are developed and tested without any federal officials, resources or expertise. Public health capacity to meet national emergencies requires laboratory facilities, stockpiles of vaccines, regional deployment of emergency supplies, expertise on decontamination, a national inventory of equipment and training of first responders to nuclear, biological or chemical attack. But with so much to do in emergency preparedness, Ottawa, the provinces, and our municipalities barely meet, let alone plan together, according to Dr. Basrur.
When I worked in Ottawa, the Emergency Measures Organization was located in the Privy Council Office (PCO) and reported to the Prime Minister. Now it is called the Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness, is located in the Department of National Defence, has a staff of little over a 100 and, as of 1998, is given a minuscule budget of $13-million. This office, along with the RCMP, the Solicitor-General's Department and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, is co-ordinated by an equally undermanned Security Secretariat in the PCO (which also provides legal advice to Cabinet). Prior to Sept. 11, so undervalued was foreign policy and security to the Chrétien government that such issues were brought to the Cabinet committee on the economic union rather than a Cabinet committee on foreign policy, although since Sept. 11, there at least has been an ad-hoc Cabinet committee on security.
To respond to a crisis, there has to be both a plan and a capacity to implement. Canada has neither. During the ice storm crisis of 1998, for example, the government of Quebec discovered only 50 municipalities had adequate emergency plans. No one knew where the generators were, how many extra beds were needed, etc. In Canada today, how many municipalities have serious plans for nuclear or biological attack? The federal government should immediately provide resources for the drawing up of plans, with an emergency exercise like Operation Dark Winter conducted in every major Canadian city. The Prime Minister should then meet with the premiers and mayors in a closed session to review the results. The military's capacity to respond to national emergencies -- a flood in the Fraser Valley, a biological crisis in Montreal, etc. -- is also badly lacking. Militia units are located across the country, but we only have 15,000 enlisted instead of the 50,000 we need. Generators, medical supplies, beds, and troops would have to be transported from regional bases to the emergency site but at any one time, half of Canada's fleet of C-130 Hercules are in maintenance, we have no heavy lift long-range aircraft, and 30% of maintenance posts are vacant or filled by personnel who are not fully trained. If a crisis occurred in Vancouver, it would take days to move equipment from camps in Trenton or Borden.
Canada is now vociferously debating the Kyoto treaty, which attempts to avert environmental tragedy in 2050. But today, not in 2050, terrorists are plotting biological and chemical attacks on North America. We need a national security and preparedness policy, and we need it now.
Thomas S. Axworthy is an adjunct lecturer of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He served as principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau from 1981-84.