Stakeholders cry foul as feds cut funding for emergency preparedness

OTTAWA — Stakeholders cry foul as feds cut funding for emergency preparedness - Complaints from provinces, municipalities and fire departments across the country are mounting, as are concerns for public safety, after the federal government ended a 30-year funding program designed to help cover the costs of emergency preparedness.

Among the cuts in the omnibus budget bill, the government quietly cancelled the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) established in 1980 and ceased operations at the Canadian Emergency Management College which has offered training to emergency responders since 1954.

The cuts were billed as a deficit reduction measure.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews' press secretary Julie Carmichael further noted "the original objectives of this program — namely to enhance local emergency preparedness and response capacity — have been met."

Stakeholders, however, argue emergency preparedness is an evolving issue, especially given the changing weather patterns that have led to an increase in natural disasters. Upgrading equipment, they add, remains an ongoing challenge and public safety could be in jeopardy as a result of the cuts.

Ontario has regularly been the biggest beneficiary of the program and Craig MacBride, a spokesman for Ontario Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur, suggested it's a blow.

He said the funds have been used to develop municipal emergency plans, conduct local exercises and even purchase generators and rescue vehicles for municipalities.

In a letter to Ontario's emergency management chief in April, Wawa, Ont., clerk Chris Wray expressed grave concern about the town of Fort Frances' ability to continue as a hub for First Nations evacuees. The Northern Ontario community has twice in the last year played host to people forced to flee their homes due to flooding and forest fires.

"It will not be possible for the community of Wawa to continue to improve our emergency management practices and abilities without the continuation of the JEPP program. This program has provided us with the tools necessary to become successful in delivering emergency management," Wray wrote.

"Should emergency management continue to be a lower priority for the federal government and perhaps the provincial government, I fear for the future of our collective ability to respond — we should all fear!"

Meanwhile, the former board chairman for the Columbia Shuswap Regional District in B.C. issued a letter in March to Toews.

In it, he raised concerns about funding reductions under the program and expressed fear that it might be "phased out completely."

Ted Bacigalupo, who has since passed away, noted a 40 per cent decrease in funding for B.C. and raised concerns projects that met the program's criteria in the past were now being denied funding simply due to a lack of it. He recommended funding be restored to pre-2010 levels and that it even be increased due to "the severity of situations experienced in recent years" as a result of "changes in weather patterns."

In an interview, Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs executive director Barry Malmsten also expressed concerns about the growing number of natural disasters fire fighters are regularly among the first to respond to. An ongoing study, he said, suggests fire services across the country are experiencing an infrastructure deficit of about $2 billion and that many trucks, breathing apparatus and other equipment are beyond their best before dates.

JEPP funding, he said, has "helped a lot" with replacing this type of gear and cutting it is a "short-term solution that's going to create long-term problems."

His federal counterpart Rob Simonds of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs was among the few voices of optimism. Federal officials, he said, told him the problem was that a lot of the allocated funds were going unused in some jurisdictions. While it hasn't been his experience — as chief in Saint John, N.B. he used JEPP to buy a mobile command unit and update the city's public notification system — he's hoping stakeholders and the federal government can find new ways to work together.

The provisions are among many unpopular changes included in the omnibus budget bill that's poised to become law before the end of the month.

While there's no specific mention of the plan in the budget or on the department's website, many stakeholders were informed of the change in a memo from assistant deputy minister Gina Wilson. Some of them have since posted the memo and the plan is also outlined in a three-page draft talking point for assistant deputy ministers obtained by Postmedia News through access to information.

"Federal contributions for emergency preparedness projects under JEPP will end in 2013 as will federal funding provided under JEPP for urban search and rescue and for critical infrastructure initiatives," the memo stated. "These changes are expected to result in a leaner, more efficient and effective federal government engaged in the delivery of its core business areas, which these two programs are outside of."

It goes on to note that "much has changed" when it comes to emergency management training which is now widely available at the provincial, territorial and municipal levels and is also offered by many community colleges, universities and private sector organizations.

Wilson added "aging infrastructure and the lack of operating self-sufficiency" has "rendered the possibility of further substantial investments . . . unsustainable."

Operations were to cease "effective immediately," however, Wilson noted a three-year deal had been struck with the Canada School of Public Service to continue delivering the college's program.

According to public accounts, the government has allotted nearly $184 million in funding under the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program since its inception. About $2.3 million has been earmarked for the program's final year which ends April 1, 2013. The funds are allocated to the provinces which, in turn, sort through the various proposals submitted by municipalities.

As part of the program, the federal government has picked up as much as 75 per cent of the cost of eligible projects.

A 2008 evaluation of the program concluded there is a need for the federal government to contribute to emergency management at the provincial and federal levels and that the absence of JEPP would "significantly and negatively" impact emergency preparedness at the community level.

That said, the report recommended updating the program's design and its terms and conditions.

By Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News June 20, 2012