January 2, 2006

Alberta pledges action to carry out emergency management report recommendations

Alberta's Environmental Protection Commission has recommended the creation of a senior-level agency within the provincial government to be responsible for a comprehensive, all-hazards approach to emergencies, disasters and security. Reporting directly to the Executive Council, this agency should also include a one-window emergency call centre within its structure to ensure that the appropriate response is triggered as quickly as possible when an incident occurs.

These are among the ten key recommendations made by the Commission in its final report, presented to Environment Minister Guy Boutilier and Municipal Affairs Minister Rob Renner in mid-December. Others include: singling out particularly vulnerable water bodies and other environmentally sensitive areas; adopting an Incident Command System; and increasing joint emergency response training exercises for all emergency responders.

Boutilier established the Commission in the wake of the August 3, 2005 CN derailment and spill at Lake Wabamun, assigning it the task of reviewing and making recommendations on Alberta's ability to respond to environmental incidents. "The Environmental Protection Commission has done an incredible job of looking at Alberta's overall emergency management and response capacity," he said.

"They've told us that there's a lot of good work being done and we should build on our strengths," Boutilier continued, adding, "Where we can, we will take immediate action on their recommendations."

Alberta Environment is taking immediate steps to set up an environmental emergency support team and will work with Alberta Municipal Affairs and other departments over the coming months to examine how to implement the rest of the Commission's recommendations.

"We agree with the Commission that our system needs to focus on an all-hazards approach that would ensure any response is proactive, effective and efficient," said Renner, who is responsible for Emergency Management Alberta. "We need to build on the solid emergency management framework we have in place now so we have a world class system that reduces our risks and prepares for, responds to, and recovers from emergencies."

The Commission told the government that the increased risks brought on by growth in population, economic base and industrial activity mean the province needs a stronger emergency management system in order to ensure that the right response is triggered during an emergency, particularly environmental emergencies. Its approach needs to be comprehensive and capable of dealing with any emergency, whether caused by nature or human activity. Response must be swift, correct, scaled to handle a worst-case scenario, and available as long as necessary to deal with the situation.

The report is especially critical of what it termed "the chronic irritant of unresolved jurisdictional differences between federal, provincial and municipal governments." This is increasingly unacceptable and must be dealt with, said the Commission.

In addition to a senior-level emergency management agency incorporating a one-window call centre, the Commission has recommended the development of a safety, environmental and security institute to support the system. It should be a non-governmental organization led by a multi-disciplinary stakeholder group and given the mandate and resources to support leading-edge research and emergency management techniques, says the report.

Another recommendation calls for the adoption of an all-hazards risk management decision-making process; this would include the determination of top-tier "at-risk" water bodies and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Within Alberta Environment, the report continues, a dedicated emergency support team should be set up to enhance the technical expertise available during an incident by providing on-site environmental advice.

The Commission further advocates adopting the Incident Command System (ICS) across Alberta to ensure effective co-operation during emergencies and communication with affected parties. The ICS model provides a standardized process for determining who is in charge at the incident site and all emergency operations centres. It also clearly specifies the roles and responsibilities of all key functions, so that confusion is eliminated and the right resources are applied to deal with an incident. ICS is standard operating procedure in fire services and industry and is becoming the standard in emergency response organizations throughout North America, notes the report.

Other recommendations include:

*significantly enhancing the number and effectiveness of joint emergency response training and field simulations conducted by industry and government (at all levels) emergency response groups;

*settling jurisdictional issues ahead of time, including those involving First Nations' land and people, so tht these issues do not interfere with an effective emergency response; and

*resolving rail transportation issues to reduce and manage risks to the environment and people..

The Commission's report, Learning the Lessons and Building Change, may be requested from Alberta Environment's Information Centre at 403/427-2700, or downloaded from the department's Web site, www.environment.gov.ab.ca.

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