Emergency Management In Canada: Understanding and Getting Over Human Nature

by Dave Hutton, Ph.D.

On September 2, 2008, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Report released it review of emergency preparedness in Canada, Emergency Preparedness 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… This is a rather damning and satiric report of Canada’s emergency management preparations which takes aim at almost all aspects of emergency management at the federal government level especially.  The report covers, among other things, the continuity of essential government services during emergencies; the usefulness of emergency caches located about the country; the funding of municipalities for emergency equipment and training; collaboration among federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments; emergency communications; and the archiving of lessons learned and best practices. The essence of the report, should one not gather it from the title itself, can be probably be summarized by one sentence that comes in the introduction – “Sadly, for the most part, this is not a heroic story” (2).

As with other arguably contentious ‘stories’, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Indeed, notable changes have been achieved in the decade since September 11th. An Emergency Management Framework for Canada (Public Safety Canada, 2005)[1] and the National Framework for Health Emergency Management (Federal/Provincial/ Territorial Network on Emergency Preparedness and Response, 2004)[2] have been developed by federal/provincial/territorial governments to serve as a basis for policy-making and planning across jurisdictions. Most jurisdictions are moving towards incident management systems, with consideration also being given to building surge capacity and mutual aid between jurisdictions. There has also been in a rise of interest in the so-called softer aspects of emergency management, with considerable attention being given to vulnerable populations and psychosocial preparedness.

Still, one would be hard pressed to reasonably argue that Canada is as prepared as it might be. Almost a decade after the World Trade Center Attack, Canada still lacks a unified national incident management system; surge capacity and interoperability – while much discussed – continue to have many question marks; funding for municipalities to buy and maintain equipment remains inadequate, adding to the problem of inter-operability; lessons to be learned are seemingly as often lost or forgotten because of a continuing lack of a centralized compilation mechanism; and standards and training remain very much with individual jurisdiction’s purview, meaning we also lack a body of nationally agreed upon better practices for dealing with future disasters.

But why are we still talking about the same issues and problems in emergency management despite the millions of tax dollars that have been allocated? In 2006, for example, $460 million ($1 billion over five years) was allocated by the federal government to improve Canada’s pandemic preparedness – an additional $19 million went to Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada to respond to other types of emergencies and disasters (Department of Finance Canada, 2006). In the 2008-09, the government allocated $58.5 million for emergency management alone, although only two-thirds of this was spent (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2009). This is a lot of money (spent and unspent) for apparently half fulfilled deliverables. But perhaps the question we should be asking is whether what has been achieved is about as much as can be realistically expected? Or worded in another way – is Canada just about where it should be, all things considered?

This is not a cop out. Rather, it forces us to look a little deeper than claims of bureaucratic ineptness and procrastination when seeking answers to our shortcomings. After all, most senior bureaucrats and civil servants are bright, committed people who have the best intentions for Canada. But let us remember that September 11th and Hurricane Katrina did not happen in or to Canada. We have had SARS and the ever-threat of pandemic influenza, but these are essentially public health risks that do not demand the same form of emergency management as do more sudden emergencies such as terrorist attacks and devastating hurricanes. Further, while these public health threats have become key drivers in building a more prepared Canada, to what extent has the response been led by public health administrators and physicians whose expertise lies in medicine rather than emergency management?

This perhaps brings us to a more important question – is there really a culture of preparedness in Canada? Maybe not, at least not in the same sense as it exists in the United States. As Guy Corriveau (2009: 3) has pointed out in his comments of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Report, “Emergency Management is not, nor should be, the province of the “hacker.” How many in the employ of government at all levels are acting as Emergency Management professionals without the necessary competencies?” Indeed, one can rise to the most senior emergency preparedness positions in the federal government without great knowledge or experience in emergency management. If you doubt this, consider the following. According to the Auditor General in 2009, only 56 percent of senior managers at Public Safety Canada in April of that year had been in their jobs for more than 18 months. The rate of employee turn-over during 2008-09 was no less than 71 percent (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2009).

A Question of Leadership

One would be amiss, however, to suggest that Canada is not without a good number of very bright and talented individuals involved in emergency management as practitioners, decision-makers, academics and researchers. What then is missing?

In the spring of 2004, I participated in a meeting focusing on the environment and emergency preparedness – attended by a number of very influential people, including one future federal minister and a soon to be appointed provincial deputy minister. Late in the meeting, after many solutions were laid out for the many problems discussed, the room reached a consensus that nothing more could be done until Canada’s ‘leadership’ assumed responsibility for such changes. As the meeting ended and the room emptied, I questioned how and why some of the most informed people in Canada could or would not see themselves as the very leaders they were seeking.

So long as we look for others to assume the mantle of leadership and change, the longer emergency preparedness in Canada will remain focused on its shortcomings rather than taking bold steps to address these. It also strikes me that there is no reason that WE as individuals can not assume the mantle of leadership. Systems, to which we so often attribute responsibility for the status quo as well as the change we desire, are in fact made up of and are driven by individuals. Systems do not create change; it is people that create change – one small step at a time. And it is through the bringing of people together that one creates the critical mass of opinion and influence that can begin to shift the dominoes of policy and decision-making.

Leadership is about choosing to act for the greater good when others do not; it is not command and control or having the authority to make legislation or otherwise ‘being in charge’. Collective leadership, to which I am referring, must ultimately be based on a common vision and effort to achieve change, which is quite different than what any one government might think is important, be it federal, provincial/territorial, or municipal. Rather, a national lobby of change must include representation from all levels of government, as well as non-government and professional organizations, academics and researchers alike.

There is no question that the pieces for change exist in Canada. Currently there is the Senior Official Responsible for Emergency Management, the Council of Emergency Management Organizations, the Expert Group on Emergency Preparedness and Response, Council of Health Emergency Management Managers, Council of Emergency Social Services Directors, Council of Emergency Voluntary Sector Directors, as well as the Domestic Group on Emergency Management and the National Municipal Emergency Social Services Network. There is also the Health Care Professional Network on Emergency Preparedness and Response and the National Advisory Group on Emergency Preparedness of the Canadian Council of Churches, not to mention a National Inter-Agency Psychosocial Working Group. Together, these cover off federal, provincial, territorial and municipal emergency management officials, national voluntary and first responder associations like the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, professional health organizations like the Canadian Medical Association, not to mention Canada’s major non-government organizations including the Canadian Red Cross, Salvation Army and St. John’s Ambulance.

What remains to be accomplished, however, is for these bodies to come together as partners to promote good emergency management in Canada. Indeed, one can reasonably surmise that we are generally aware of the shortcomings of emergency preparedness in Canada. Unfortunately, we also seem to spend far more time explaining and defending away the status quo as the responsibility of other jurisdictions than working together to find solutions to cross-jurisdictional challenges that demand open dialogue and collaborative planning.

To this point, it seems that we have not put behind us the jurisdictional sand box issues that leave most Canadians shaking their heads. Rather than finding ways to be helpful, it seems that it is easier to find reasons for not having open discussions about issues that can not be realistically resolved by any one government. I expect this sometimes has something to do with that great human urge to have things one’s own way, although I also expect that many simply do not get it, the it being the necessity for emergency managers to base their preparations as much on collaborative planning and mutual assistance as their own needs and capacities. Consider the following excerpt from the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Report (2008: 64-65) between John Ash, Emergency Manager for Ottawa (remember this name for later) and Senators Ruth and Tkachuk:

Mr. Ash: What would happen if there were a dirty bomb-type of incident that involved the Hill? Is there an expectation that members of Parliament – the Senate and what have you – will receive preferential treatment with regard to decontamination?

Senator Nancy Ruth: Are you asking us?

Senator Tkachuk: I have no idea.

Mr. Ash: I have no idea myself, but I have asked some people within the federal government and there is an assumption that there would be … We want to have that dialogue. We want to be frank and candid, throw the cards on the table and say this is where we are at, so we can close the gaps if necessary.

Senator Tkachuk: Are you pushing for that dialogue now?

Mr. Ash: Yes.

Senator Tkachuk: Are they being helpful or are they stalling you? What is happening? Maybe we can help you.

Mr. Ash: It was challenging for me, because I spent probably two years trying to find the right person to talk to.

Senator Nancy Ruth: We have the same problem.

The notion that we can build and sustain collaborative working relationships in Canada strikes me as easier said than done. For all the devastation that disasters cause, they also serve as catalysts for significant policy and practice changes. Fortunately, Canada does not have regular disasters of scope that force us to work with one another in ways that bring transformational changes to our systems and practices.  This is not to say that changes do not occur, after all the Public Health Agency of Canada owes its existence to the SARS crisis in 2003. However, to the point of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Report (2008: 2), these changes have not necessarily culminated in a national emergency response system and capacity that one might have expected for the dollars invested:

“During the intervening years [between the 1987 Edmonton Tornado and 2009] various orders of government have inched toward improved national coordination for disaster relief, but even “inched” often seems like a generous word, used here only because “centimetered” hasn’t come into common usage.

We also seem to have been unreasonably hesitant to adopt the core competencies and standards of emergency management that are common in the United States. Across the border, there has been a steady evolution of emergency management since the Cold War, marked by a number of significant achievements such as the National Mitigation Strategy, the Federal Response Framework and National Incident Management System, as well training and equipping of emergency personnel to ensure adequate response capacity. Moreover, there has been a “professionalization” of emergency managers through the NFPA 1600 Standards on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs and certification programs for emergency managers at both the national and states levels.

This has not been the story in Canada. In fact, the lag in adopting standards and competencies has not only meant that we have been less likely to implement better practices in the first place, it also means that lessons learned during an emergency are not as likely to be grasped and implemented within the narrow windows of opportunity that typically follow sudden and catastrophic events. Without a foundation of standards and practices by which we can evaluate and critique what has happened, we run the age old risk of accepting lessons without adequate analysis. Instead, “lessons learned are often ‘what people want to learn” or [what] administrators may wish to have remembered” (McAllister, 2008: 2). This apparently does not exactly bode well for training either – between 2003 and 2009,  Public Safety Canada spent a combined annual federal budget of $12 million to provide CBRNE training to some 1,850 first responders and awareness training to another 10,400. “While Public Safety Canada has administered participant questionnaires and consulted experts and other government departments, it has not conducted a formal needs analysis for its first responder training” (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2009: 18).

At the same time, we are rarely called upon to work with one another for the greater good of imperiled citizens – which is exactly what major disasters demand from us. Instead, there remains a grudging willingness among the different constituencies of emergency managers and responders to plan together, however infrequent this may be. The Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Preparedness does not sit down with the Expert Group on Emergency Preparedness and Response or the Council of Health Emergency Management Directors, the Council of Emergency Social Services Directors does not want to plan with the National Municipal Emergency Social Services Network, and no one wants to talk with the Council of Emergency Voluntary Sector Directors.

While there logically seems to be no good reason that governments and organizations cannot work together more effectively, getting everyone into the proverbial sand box seems to be a significant and ongoing challenge facing the Canadian emergency management community. But perhaps this should also not come as a surprise. For the most part – and this is supported by sociological research – we like things and people that are familiar to us and prefer consistency to diversity, even when the latter might be to our best interest.

Towards A ‘Canadian’ Culture of Preparedness

Perhaps it is also time to recognize that emergency preparedness in Canada can not be shaped in the manner it has been formed in the United States. But while we have been fortunate not to have experienced the devastating events that have shaped emergency management across the border, and while we continue to struggle to establish a community rooted in standards and competencies, that does not mean emergency management in Canada can not mature and develop.

Indeed, over recent years there have been significant developments in the field in Canada that deserve noting. Emergency management programs have been established at the University of Brandon in Manitoba, York University in Ontario and Royal Roads University in British Columbia. These universities are producing a new generation of emergency managers who are entering the field with a grounding in the principles and practices of good emergency management. At the same time, the formation of the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network in 2003 provides both a network and an annual forum to bring together practitioners, academics, researchers and policy-makers to collectively address the challenges which we face.

The past decade has also shown that it is possible to address the question of collaborative leadership. The Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response (Public Health Agency of Canada) under the leadership of Dr. Ron St. John is a case in point. Beginning in 2002, the Centre held its first annual National Forum on Emergency Preparedness and Response. The Forum, which began with some 50 federal, provincial and territorial Government officials, eventually reached over 250 participants from all areas of emergency management and government as well as representatives from non-government and professional health organizations. While the themes of the National Forum were focused on emerging priorities – for example, reaching consensus on the National Framework for Health Emergency Management and elements of a National Health Incident Management System – the Forum was always about recognizing the breadth and diversity of emergency management stakeholders (which is different from emergency management itself). As such, its overarching objective remained one of bringing people to together around a community of practice based on mutual respect and understanding.

It may well be that the National Forum, at least in its original form, has seen its day.  Leadership thrives and wanes within any organization, in no small part because of personalities. But there is no lack of individual leadership in Canada; what seems to be lacking is a willingness to put aside competing interests, political agendas, and bureaucratic inertia in order to address the ‘greater good’.  We also tend to fall into the trap of seeing those not immediately involved in our own circle of planners and decision-makers as ’outsiders’ who bring ideas and perspectives that only cloud the ‘real’ issues and slow down decision-making.

We need to recognize – as a principle of good emergency management – that we only increase our risks by not involving the wider ring of stakeholders and constituents. In Flirting with Disaster, Marc Gerstein (2008) points out that accidents and disasters are rarely accidental. Citing disasters ranging from the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle explosions to Chernobyl and Katrina, the author points that organizations that rely on a relatively small number of experts too often become prone to group think which fosters its own form of human bias, distortion, and errors of judgment. In explaining the Challenger disaster specifically, Jeff Forrest (2005: 2) has written that “although the destruction of the Shuttle Challenger was caused by the hardware failure of a solid rocket booster (SRB) “O” ring, the human decision to launch was, in itself, flawed … The decision to delay a Shuttle launch had developed into an “unwanted” decision by the members of the Shuttle team.  In other words, suggestions made by any group member that would ultimately support a scheduled launch were met with positive support by the group. Any suggestion that would lead to a delay was rejected by the group”. Taking a broader but no less relevant view in The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki (2004: 1) observes that “any time most of the people in a group are biased in the same direction, it’s probably not going to make good decisions … Experts, no matter how smart, only have limited amounts of information. They also, like all of us, have biases”.

This implies not only a need for greater dialogue between emergency management organizations themselves but a real appreciation of the role and contributions that non-government, professional and community organizations have in emergencies and disasters. Emergencies and disasters do not generally happen to us; they happen to and are ultimately managed by communities, with recovery often driven by non-government organizations, churches and other community groups. As such, we can not see these stakeholders as part of a problem to be fixed; indeed, they are very much part of the solution itself. To this end, we would be well served by emergency managers and public servants who are not only experts in the field but who are comfortable in sharing both the responsibility and credit for good emergency management with their partners at all levels.

As we move forward in emergency management in Canada, it is perhaps more important now than ever to recognize that human nature seems to have a far greater part in how make decisions and work with one another than we might appreciate or like to admit. Underneath this, of course, lies the most fundamental factor of emergency management – relationships between people, trust and reciprocity. Regardless of who is in charge, a response is only as successful as the degree to which those involved cultivate relationships of inter-dependence and openness in communication and information sharing. This is the most basic of all lessons, learned in so many emergencies and disasters but somehow lost upon just enough of us to make it ever so difficult to sustain. No doubt this is also part of human nature, but so too is our willingness and capacity to be do things differently, like picking up the phone when John Ash calls.


Corriveau, G. (2009). Have You Read Canada’s Standing Senate Committee’s Report on Emergency Preparedness? Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management,(1) Article 62. Available at: http://www.bepress.com/jhsem /vol6/iss1/62.

Department of Finance Canada (2006). Budget 2006: Focusing on Priorities. Available at: http://www.fin.gc.ca/budtoc/2006/budlist-eng.asp.

Federal /Provincial/Territorial Network on Emergency Preparedness and Response. National Framework for Health Emergency Management: Guideline for Program Development. Prepared for the Conference of Federal /Provincial/Territorial Ministers of Health. Ottawa (Ontario). Unpublished report.

Forrest, J. (2005).”The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: A failure in decision support system and human factors management. Available at: http://dssresources. com/cases/spaceshuttlechallenger/index.html

Gerstein, M. (2008). Flirting with disasters: Why accidents are rarely accidental. New York: Union Square Press.

McAllister, I. (2008). From disaster relief to emergency management: Lessons learned and institutional memory. Available at: http://economics.dal.ca/Files/Lessons/_ Learned.pdf.

Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2009). 2009 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada. Available at: http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_ 200911_e_33252.html.

Public Safety Canada (2005). An emergency management framework for Canada. Available at: http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/prg/em/emfrmwrk-eng.aspx.

Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Report (2008). Emergency Preparedness in Canada: How the fine arts of bafflegab and procrastination hobble the people who will be trying to save you when things getreally bad… Available at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/common/Committee_SenRep.asp? Language= E&Parl=39& Ses=2&comm_id=76).

Random House (2004). Q & A with James Surowiecki. Available at: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/index.html.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Dave Hutton used to work for the Public Health Agency of Canada and currently serves with the United Nations.

Dave Hutton PhD, Programme Support Office, UNRWA, West Bank Field Office, Israel


[1] An Emergency Management Framework for Canada was completed and approved by the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Emergency Management in 2005. The Framework defines fundamental concepts and principles underlying emergency management in Canada.

[2] The National Framework for Health Emergency Management was completed in 2004 by the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Network on Emergency Preparedness and Response. The National Framework lays out principles and guidelines to be used by jurisdictions in implementing emergency health and social services programs.