Federal audit exposes gaps in government emergency planning

As spring flooding plagues communities in Eastern Canada and the spectre of wildfires looms again in the West, an internal federal government audit says one of the government departments that plays a “significant” role during natural disasters isn’t testing its emergency plans to make sure they work.

The internal audit by Natural Resources, posted online in April, notes a number of gaps and shortcomings that the department needs to address as it deals with an “increasing frequency of national emergencies.”

The report — titled Audit of NRCan’s Management Framework for Responsibilities under the Emergency Management Act — focused on the two years between April 2016 and September 2018.

Over that period, Canada saw destructive flooding in parts of New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario and the devastating 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta. which destroyed more than 2,500 homes.

Provincial and municipal post-mortem reports on the Fort McMurray wildfire response showed emergency services at the provincial and municipal levels were plagued by disorganization and poor communication.

While the federal audit isn’t as scathing, it points out that Natural Resources has a number of emergency plans in place to deal with a range of disasters, such as wildfires, earthquakes, energy supply shortages or incidents at nuclear or oil and gas facilities.

But the department hasn’t tested those plans or trained its employees to use them through mock active exercises, test drills or table-top exercises, says the audit.

Government dropping the ball: Conservatives

Richard Moreau is the director of emergency management solutions at the Calian Group, a consultancy that develops emergency management plans in the private sector. He said emergency teams that don’t rehearse their disaster plans frequently waste time in the early stages of their response to an actual crisis.

“If you spend the first several hours of an activation trying to organize yourself, you are already behind,” Moreau said. “And that’s what the exercises and the training (do) … (They) make that transition as smooth as possible so you can immediately focus your effort on dealing with the problem rather than getting yourself organized.”

Pierre Paul-Hus, the Conservative critic for public safety and emergency preparedness, said the audit shows the Liberals don’t take disaster preparedness seriously.

“You know, it is easy to say, ‘We have plans, we are ready,’ and then you leave the plans on the desk,” Paul-Hus said. “But if you never practice it, you won’t be ready.”

The audit acknowledges Public Safety Canada as the lead federal authority on disaster response but said Natural Resources plays a “significant supporting” role in many natural and human-caused disasters.

The audit, which updates a 2014 report, credits the department with making progress in developing better plans for managing crises.

But “there are several opportunities to improve the adequacy and the effectiveness of these processes,” audit author Christian Asselin wrote.

Natural Resources committed to doing better

The report also raises questions about staffing shortages during “extended periods” in emergencies and whether federal employees are trained to use the Incident Management System, a standard organizational and management tool for disaster management.

Natural Resources spokesperson Audrey Champagne said in an email the department “continues to improve” its disaster management and is working on a three-year exercise calendar that will allow it to provide ongoing training for its staff.

It also said the 2019 federal budget includes $151.23 million over five years to help fix gaps in emergency management across the country.

Natural Resources said the recent April audit cost the department $102,500 to produce.

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