Are we paying attention?

Morley Lymburner
March 24, 2011
By Morley Lymburner
Looking at the horrific aftermath of the Japanese earthquake makes you wonder what would have happened if it had occurred in Canada. Are we as prepared as the Japanese government, their emergency services or people? It is a difficult question to answer. The most significant lesson from Japan is that disasters are never singular events. The multiple horrors the quake caused was accompanied by a Tsunami and then multiplied by exploding nuclear reactors.

Looking at the horrific aftermath of the Japanese earthquake makes you wonder what would have happened if it had occurred in Canada. Are we as prepared as the Japanese government, their emergency services or people? It is a difficult question to answer.

The most significant lesson from Japan is that disasters are never singular events. The multiple horrors the quake caused was accompanied by a Tsunami and then multiplied by exploding nuclear reactors.

Disasters stretch first responders to the breaking point. Police face looting and widespread unrest, fire services strive to rescue victims while coping with multiple infernos and ambulance and hospitals are overwhelmed with thousands of victims. All of this can occur with little or no warning, making events difficult to predict before they unfold.

The priority in the aftermath of a disaster becomes maintaining the health of the surviving population. This is where a myriad of other services come into play. All must be coordinated and dispatched to where they are most needed.

In the Japanese quake scenario, several factors worked in the nation’s favour. Japan has the world’s third largest economy so money and resources are not a problem. It is compact, so help is never too far away, and with 127 million people, finding rescuers is not a serious issue. It is well connected and blessed with both good communications and transportation. Most importantly, its citizens are well educated, disaster savvy and did not panic in the face of so much adversity.

In comparing all of these factors to Canada, it becomes clear that, given our geography, we are both blessed and cursed. We have less people, much greater distances between communities, longer communications networks and fewer seismologically sensitive areas. The Pacific Rim of British Columbia is an exception but it has no need for nuclear power plants.

The Japanese experience should encourage all members of law enforcement to work closely with fire and ambulance personnel. This month’s cover is a shining example of inter-agency co-operation between the police and EMS services in York Region. Members of both agencies gear up, work and train together to maximize their effectiveness. At the very least, in times of crisis, they are familiar with each other’s approach, protocols and equipment. I encourage you to not wait until disaster strikes but to follow their example.

Over the past year Blue Line has presented a series of articles by firefighter, paramedic, author and instructor Michael Weaver, a strong advocate of inter-service and cross agency training. He will present a seminar at this month’s Blue Line Training sessions.

Weaver’s drive for better communication, co-ordination and training between emergency services was heightened by Robert Dziekanski’s death at the Vancouver Airport. He has long believed the RCMP officers’ actions were representative of what any officer would do in the absence of proper training to identify, request resources and physically manage an extremely agitated individual in medical crisis.

A “universal response” between emergency services can maximize our ability to respond to and better mitigate large and small disasters.

This month’s lead story by technology editor Tom Rataj highlights the importance of obtaining appropriate, reliable communications linkages. This is underscored by the bandwidth that will become available later this year when Canadian television stops broadcasting in analog on Aug. 31. Given the multiple disasters in Japan, how much of that bandwidth will be reserved for emergency services?

The Ontario Emergency Services Department invited me to a training workshop at the Ontario Police College a few years ago. I was introduced to police, fire and ambulance people all keenly interested in sticking their noses into each other’s business, so-to-speak.

Questions ranged from how police officers should approach dangerous substances and how paramedics extract injured police officers from firefights to how firefighters use stretcher-boards to immobilize agitated suspects police are apprehending and how agencies can meet to talk about improving emergency preparedness.

In the weeks, months and years ahead we will hear more about the Japanese experience handling multiple disasters. Let us hope that our eyes and ears are open to what they have learned and will learn. A plan of action implemented with communication, co-ordination and training between agencies and disciplines can save lives... and careers!

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