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Emergency preparedness takes a hit

Emergency planning for Canadian municipalities, regional districts, and search and rescue groups suffered a significant blow with the Ottawa’s plan to cancel its Joint Emergency Preparedness Program next March.

Established in 1980, the program contributed more than $170 million to enhance the country’s capacity to respond to emergencies or natural disasters.

Projects are proposed annually by provincial and territorial governments on behalf of municipalities and regional districts and cost-shared with the federal government.

The Regional District of Nanaimo received close to $50,000 in JEPP funding since 2004.

Jani Drew, RDN emergency coordinator, said the cancellation of the federal portion will affect the objective to be operationally ready at all times to respond and recover from an emergency or disaster.

“You’re never finished with emergency preparedness or increasing the resilience of a community. It’s an ongoing process you need to nurture and refresh,” she said. “It’s almost a living thing you need to continue to invest in.”

The funding was used for training, emergency exercises and equipment for the RDN’s emergency operation centre and reception centre.

“In 2009 we had a large-scale fire exercise with 200 participants and 50 per cent of that was paid by JEPP,” said Drew. “There was so much benefit to every stakeholder agency and the public, and we couldn’t have done it at that scale without the funding.”

Plans for a 2014 earthquake scenario exercise are being reexamined due to the cutbacks.

“But one thing that doesn’t change is the need for it,” said Drew. “It’s all important, and all you can vaguely consider is tinkering with timelines or scaling it back a bit. But radically altering how you provide for public safety in a disaster cannot be compromised.”

The City of Nanaimo saved $17,000 in training and the purchase of hand-held radios in 2008. Funding must now be found elsewhere, said Karen Lindsay, Nanaimo Emergency Program coordinator.

The cuts come just when the public’s awareness for emergency management and preparedness is increasing.

“We are constantly trying to work on getting the community prepared and JEPP is a resource we certainly could use,” she said. “Emergency management can be easily forgotten because it’s not happening now. But when you need it, you want to have as much as you can in place to minimize the impact of the event.”

James Lunney, Nanaimo-Alberni Conservative MP, said the program was established because gaps were identified in the ability of local governments and provinces to respond quickly to emergency situations.

“A lot of good work has happened over the last several years,” he said. “Emergency preparedness is a provincial responsibility and we feel the capacity has been addressed to the point the program has fulfilled its objectives.”

Lunney said disaster relief is another matter.

“If we have a catastrophic event, disaster relief is still there,” he said. “And if gaps in emergency response are identified in the future, the program can always be revisited.”

Jean Crowder, Nanaimo-Cowichan NDP MP, said the cuts are another example of back-door downloading  by the federal government.

“We live in an earthquake zone, we have all these variable weather conditions now whether it’s floods or fires, and the province and municipalities will have to fill the gap,” she said. “It seems to me there is more call now to make sure  our emergency preparedness providers are well equipped.”

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