The force of last resort: how the CAF respond to natural disasters across Canada

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Article / June 23, 2014

By Alycia Coulter

When natural disasters occur in Canada, the initial response is the responsibility of the provincial and territorial governments. If the scale of the crisis overwhelms local authorities, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) may be tasked to support the relief effort.

On 20 June 2013, thousands of residents in Southern Alberta were forced to leave their homes after torrential rain and widespread flooding occurred in the province. The provincial authorities had the lead in organizing the response efforts, but the CAF were tasked to support hard-hit communities such as Canmore, High River, Calgary and Medicine Hat during Operation LENTUS 13-01.

At the height of the operation, over 2,300 soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen were deployed to Southern Alberta, creating one of the largest domestic military operations in Canadian history.

The crisis in Alberta last year demonstrated how the CAF respond to natural disasters as directed by Contingency Plan LENTUS. The plan dictates how the CAF can provide support to provincial and territorial authorities in the case of a major natural disaster such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or forest fires.

 “The purpose of Contingency Plan LENTUS is to ensure we can provide timely and effective natural disaster response as the force of last resort,” said Major George Plumton, Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC) J3 Operations. The force of last resort means that the CAF will be tasked to activate the plan and support local authorities only after the disaster has overwhelmed their capacity to respond.

Every time we activate, it becomes an operation,” said Maj Plumton.

The CAF can engage in natural disaster relief when the province sends a request to the federal government for assistance. The Minister of National Defence can transfer that request to the Chief of Defence Staff for a CAF response, who can formally task the CJOC Commander to activate the operation. CJOC personnel can then coordinate the personnel, vehicles, equipment, crews and aircraft needed in the region, in coordination with the respective regional joint task force.

This year, the province of Ontario formally requested CAF support on three occasions during the month of May. Three communities in the James Bay region – Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat First Nations – all required evacuation support due to spring flooding. During each operation, Canadian Rangers assisted in voluntary evacuation activities and CC-130 Hercules aircraft evacuated local residents.

When responding to requests, there are some restrictions to what the CAF can do. Deploying troops to conduct disaster relief cannot disrupt ongoing operations or search and rescue operations. In most cases, the units closest to the disaster location will be tasked before engaging additional units across the country.

 “The problem with a disaster is that you do not know how big it will become,” said Lieutenant-Colonel (LCol) Martin Perron, CJOC J3 Continental Operations. “It normally is big when we get involved, but if it gets bigger, we can put more resources, more troops, more equipment, and more planes depending on what is needed.”

Sometimes, support is required before the formal request can be approved through the chain of command. In this case, a rapid response operation (RRO) takes place.

During a RRO, the local commander can declare an immediate response to a disaster and has the authority to task available units within his region. A RRO can be declared if an immediate response would save lives or alleviate human suffering that would otherwise occur by formally seeking the authority needed to respond.

Regardless of the process used to deploy troops, the CAF acts in a support role on the ground. In most cases, the CAF protect infrastructure, evacuate citizens with aircraft, provide mobility support in affected areas or directly support civilian responders.

Responding to these types of crises require effective communication, especially when there are several actors from different organizations involved.

Liaison Officers are in place to monitor emergency management at the provincial and federal levels and work with counterparts from other government departments. Collaboration ensures that everyone knows their responsibilities and what each organization can bring to the table.

 “We often help a lot with the crisis management of the province, to sort out what is the current priority, and to send troops where they are needed,”   said LCol Perron. When the provinces can manage the crisis on their own, the CAF resume their regular duties.

Following an operation, the lessons learned by the Canadian Armed Forces can be applied to the annual review of Contingency Plan LENTUS. This ensures that CJOC is better prepared for future disaster relief operations.

When the CAF is tasked to support a disaster relief operation, the provincial and territorial authorities receive the critical support they need to get the job done. For the CAF personnel deployed on the operation, it’s also an opportunity to directly assist local citizens.

 “It gives the soldiers a chance to respond with their skills, their equipment, and their discipline, but it also helps them to retouch base with the larger Canadian community,” said Maj Plumton. “In the end, they are able to make a useful contribution to help Canadians.”

 Regardless of the type of disaster, Contingency Plan LENTUS offers the CAF the necessary guidance to support disaster relief operations when required.

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