Canadian Military Emergency Response: Highly Effective, but Rarely Part of the Plan

Article excerpt

GENERALLY, AMERICANS like to keep their soldiers out of civilian business. Fearing the potential oppression of a standing army, in 1787 the Nation's founding fathers sought to constrain it in the Constitution. That attitude still resonates with many Americans today.1 They might occasionally vote former generals into public office, but the idea of an active duty officer forcibly inserting himself into civil affairs is abhorrent. Even in times of domestic calamity the U.S. Army has been expected to maintain a relative distance: It could intervene, but only after a request from civil authorities, and its efforts were to be secondary to those launched by civil authorities. In short, the Army was to subordinate itself unequivocally to civilian leadership.

The 2005 hurricane season might have changed some of that thinking. The response to Hurricane Katrina caused President George W. Bush to wonder aloud about expanding the Army's role in domestic emergencies. But if that role is expanded, how might a still-skeptical public react? How should the Army comport itself to allay suspicion about its motives?

For a few answers, we might consider Canada's Armed Forces. The Canadian military also responds to civil emergencies when asked-and sometimes when not asked. It, too, usually takes direction from civilian authorities. However, although the upper levels of the Canadian Government appear concerned about the military getting out of hand, the public is not.2 A brief review of responses by Canadian Forces (CF) to domestic problems suggests why.

Accidents, Disasters, and Catastrophes

The history of CF domestic intervention indicates that in an emergency Canada's military can look after its own needs as well as provide well-equipped, well-organized personnel to respond to accidents, disasters, or catastrophes. As a rule, accidents occur at a single location and end quickly; there is no continuing threat. An accident could be a train wreck, a building collapse, or a plane crash, and its cause could be anything from mechanical failure to human error. Accidents are at the low end of the crisis scale. By contrast, a disaster spreads destruction, injury, and death over a wide area. Roads could be blocked and communications disrupted or overloaded. At the high end of the scale are catastrophes, which are so destructive they damage one or more communities' abilities to respond. Injuries and deaths number in the thousands; destruction is horrific; the response effort must be massive.

Canadian Forces have responded to all three kinds of crisis. They responded to

* The 1985 Gander air crash, an accident in which 256 people, 248 of them from the 101 st Airborne (Air Assault) Division, were killed.

* The 1998 ice storm in Eastern Canada that knocked out power to 15 percent of Canadian homes and forced scores of communities to declare states of emergency.

* The 1917 Halifax catastrophe where an ammunition ship exploded, setting Halifax on fire, killing 1,963 people, and injuring 9,000 more.

The response to the Gander air crash involved providing aid to another Federal department. The response to the ice storm came after a formal request for military assistance. The response in Halifax occurred because military personnel were among the victims.

Gander air crash. When a U.S. charter aircraft carrying 101st Airborne troops crashed at Gander, Newfoundland, on 12 December 1985, Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Gander became involved immediately.3 Base personnel were part of the routine emergency response plan at the airport and were therefore ready to go. The airport was run by Transport Canada, a Federal Government department, and the crash occurred on government property. CFB Gander's base commander joined others at the secure command post at Gander airport and made personnel available to assist as required. His presence was expected. During an airport emergency, he was always notified, and he always responded. …