Mutual Aid, Mutual Benefits
Agreements between Canada, U.S. States
Can Bring Emergency Assistance More Quickly
By Beverly Bell, Senior Policy Analyst, National Emergency Management Association
Residents of Oregon, Washington state and southwestern British Columbia had been preparing for the big one for years, so when the 6.8 magnitude earthquake finally hit, no one was really surprised.
The ground shook for 184 seconds and, in that three-minute time span, the face of this part of the world changed irrevocably. Office buildings collapsed, neighborhoods crumbled and landslides swept away huge sections of roads. As gas lines ruptured, ensuing fires consumed entire business districts. The final blow was a tsunami that fanned out across the Pacific Ocean, inundating an 800-mile coastline from California to Canada.
It’s just a scenario, but one emergency management officials have played out numerous times: A major disaster occurs somewhere along the U.S./Canadian border and resources must be sent immediately from one country to the other. Until 15 years ago, state-to-province assistance—or vice versa—wasn’t clear-cut. While help would come, it probably would be delivered on a piecemeal basis, replete with urgent phone calls and emails, and plenty of long-distance negotiation.
That is no longer the case.
Now, three international mutual aid agreements—modeled after the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, known as EMAC, in the U.S.—can facilitate that exchange. Congress approved the newest agreement, the Northern Emergency Management Assistance Compact, through a joint resolution in January 2013.
The agreements provide an operational framework for eligible members, which include 20 states, 10 Canadian provinces and one territory, to share resources. The compacts also allow for joint planning, exercising and training, so if a real-world event occurs, all the players will be familiar with the proper provisions and protocols.
Help is Close By
Rob McAleer, director of the Maine State Emergency Management Agency, has been a key player in two of the agreements. From December 2008 to May 2012, he served as the U.S. co-chair of the International Emergency Management Group, the governing body for the International Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which includes states and provinces in the eastern U.S. and Canada.
“We look at it just the way we do with EMAC,” McAleer said.
EMAC, which in 1996 became the first national disaster-relief agreement to be ratified by the U.S. Congress since the Civil Defense Compact of 1950, allows assistance across state lines. Administered by the National Emergency Management Association, an affiliate of The Council of State Governments, EMAC has been credited with successful responses in numerous disasters, from Superstorm Sandy to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Like EMAC, none of these international agreements replace assistance from a central, national government, but they do represent another potential source of assistance.
“We’re much closer to New Brunswick than we are to most of the United States, particularly in the northern end of our state,” McAleer said, “so it’s natural for us to look in that direction if we need assistance.”
The Canadian partners agree.
“I’m a small province with a staff of 15,” said Aaron Campbell, manager of the Prince Edward Island Office of Public Safety. Campbell served as the Canadian co-chair of the International Emergency Management Group from fall 2009 to spring 2012. In the event of a disaster, he said, “I’ve made it known that Prince Edward Island will be a jurisdiction that’s asking early and likely be looking for a deep bench from our colleagues to assist.”
Mike Templeton, manager of the Yukon Emergency Measures Organization, faces the same situation.
“We’re the farthest west in Canada that you can get,” he said. “With the exception of some of the high Nunavut (Territory), we’re also probably the furthest from any help. If we got into a need, being where we are, I’m calling my closest neighbors.”
His closest neighbors may very well be Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state in the U.S., as well as British Columbia, which all are members of the Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Arrangement.
John Madden admits he didn’t know about the Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Arrangement until he was named director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in 2007. The agreement, he said, just makes sense. Roughly 500 miles extend between the southernmost tip of Alaska and its nearest U.S. community in northern Washington state.
“If there’s a way to shortcut that tyranny of distance, I always thought it was a good idea,” Madden said.
Agreements Offer Other Benefits
Proximity of assistance is the most obvious advantage of these agreements. The benefits, however, extend far beyond that.
Because of their relationship through the International Emergency Management Group, Maine and New Brunswick have linked two systems that provide situational awareness during and after a disaster. Virtual Maine and the New Brunswick Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System are tools that provide real-time information on areas impacted by a disaster.
“They can see what’s going on here in Maine and we can pull down (Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System) data off of their system,” McAleer said.
In the Northwest, emergency management officials in Canada and the U.S. used the framework of the Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Arrangement and the alliance among its members to help prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Without such a framework that had already established contingencies and developed potential outcomes, the group would have had to start from scratch and would have lost valuable time in preparations.
The planning elements within all the agreements allow members to discern their jurisdiction’s disaster resources more precisely—and more easily identify gaps in those resources.
“By sharing our scenarios both ways across this border, we can better understand the assumptions,” Madden said. “We can better understand the capabilities and we can prepare our own way in which to contribute and maintain essential services.”
While investments by individual states and provinces are beneficial to the international agreements, coordinating these purchases can be a good way to stretch shrinking tax dollars.
“We’ve even got examples of towns on both sides of the border synchronizing their budgets so that they’re both not buying the same piece of equipment. That’s a beautiful thing,” McAleer said.
Final Piece of Mutual Aid Network
McAleer was actively involved in the launch of the most recent international agreement and the final piece in the mutual aid network along the Canadian/U.S. border—the State and Province Emergency Management Assistance Memorandum of Understanding, now known as the Northern Emergency Management Assistance Compact.
“The intent was to have one umbrella agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico,” he said. “At some point in time, we thought we could get something accomplished in the middle part of the Canadian and U.S. countries. So we focused on that piece.”
Once the agreement was completed, the group went to work this summer on the nuts-and-bolts components.
“We’ve got the agreement,” McAleer said. “Now, here’s how we breathe some life into this thing and take on some of those operational aspects,” such as requesting resources and completing paperwork correctly.
It’s the same growing pains the other two agreements have worked through and necessary steps to a successful implementation. Those include face-to-face meetings and regular conference calls throughout the year. Participating states and provinces have held joint training and exercises to allow both countries to test their cross-border processes and push the system to find the points of vulnerability.
In August, for example, the Yukon Territory participated in Operation Nanook, an annual disaster preparedness exercise conducted by the Canadian Armed Forces. At the invitation of Templeton and the Yukon emergency management agency, Alaska provided support.
In June 2012, Washington state and British Columbia joined several cities, counties and the private sector in the first-ever cross-border exercise, using a 7.1 magnitude earthquake as the scenario.
The International Emergency Management Group held an exercise in early September in advance of the region’s Vigilant Guard 2014, which will be held in November 2013 and will identify weaknesses in current plans for a major disaster.
These simulated events serve as great learning opportunities, Templeton said.
“We might as well learn all the hoops we need to hop through now versus when something is really happening,” he said.
While none of the agreements have been activated for an actual disaster, a wildland fire in the Yukon Territory this summer raised the likelihood for one of them. Some 20,000 acres burned near the Alaskan border. As the fire edged closer to a small, isolated community, Templeton started planning for an evacuation and reached out to Alaska.
“There are really only two routes out of town,” he said. “There’s one highway, which is about a six-hour drive. Or it’s up and across the border into the state of Alaska. I quickly made a call to my counterparts over in Alaska, and said, ‘Hey, if we had to send people to you, can you guys help us out?’ And they said, ‘No problem at all. Just let us know when.’”
In the end, the rains came and no evacuation route was necessary, but the fact that the relationships established through Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Arrangement afforded Templeton that option was crucial.
“I’m looking for the most efficient and effective response to provide support to the Yukon,” he said. “I don’t care where it’s coming from.”
Ready for the ‘Big One’
All the emergency management experts agree the “big one” is coming at some point.
“We’ve been knocking on wood,” said Templeton. He pointed to Superstorm Sandy as a sign of threats to come. Another 100 miles north and the Canadian provinces of the International Emergency Management Group would have been “in a world of hurt,” he said.
“The longer it’s been since we’ve had our severe incident, the closer we’re getting to our next one,” Campbell said. “It’s going to be a matter of time.”
Regardless of whether that disaster is a massive earthquake, devastating flooding or some kind of manmade event, these international agreements provide tools so both the U.S. and Canada can work seamlessly together to respond and, eventually, recover.