Emergency response and law enforcement agencies learned painful lessons the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the intervening years, those agencies have worked to put what was learned into practice, such as identifying people and materials that are potential threats and keeping them from crossing into Canada.
That job is similar to what it was before 9-11, said Robert Farrell, Canada Border Services Agency’s Port of Nanaimo superintendent, but now relies heavily on intelligence gathered and shared by multiple agencies and a sharp awareness of potential threats abroad that could reach within Canada’s borders.
Nanaimo is one the B.C.’s smaller ports, but with people and goods flowing to and from the city on private and commercial boats, ferries and aircraft in Nanaimo’s harbour and airport, CBSA officers have a wider variety of holes to patch than their counterparts in large centres like Vancouver tasked to specific ports and border crossings.
“A lot of people don’t realize Nanaimo is a border point,” Farrell said. “The water is a border. It’s not defined like the land and airports, but it still is.”
Border personnel conduct inspections of commercial and agricultural goods and collect fees, but security is their top priority, followed by intervention of drugs, firearms and other contraband and preventing travellers from bringing in undeclared goods, such as liquor, cigarettes and merchandise.
When advanced integrated intelligence gathering systems were introduced in 2003, CBSA officers became the front line interceptors of people wanted by the law and goods that could be dangerous or used illegally.
“One of the big changes that has come in is the advanced passenger information – personal name, records, that type of stuff – where we’re getting information prior to the people or the goods arriving in Canada,” Farrell said.
Co-operation between agencies is crucial.
Border Services co-ordinates and shares intelligence with the RCMP and U.S. Customs and Border Protection and runs information on suspect individuals through the Canadian Police Information Centre, U.S. National Crime Information Center and Interpol.
“We deal with risk management,” Farrell said. “The majority of people are honest and not an issue to us. We want to be able to focus on the ones who are the issue.”
Staff Sgt. Doug Chisholm, head of Nanaimo RCMP’s plain clothes operations, said one of the first post 9-11 tasks was training police to deal with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.
“Experience has been that we’ve got a heightened awareness around strange packages and white powder being mailed around to different government officials,” Chisholm said.
Development of integrated national enforcement teams and better integration between national and local field investigators has helped streamline law enforcement.
“A lot of our integrated units evolved out of understanding and recognizing that we needed a national security net right across the country,” Chisholm said.
Intelligence gathering and co-ordination has improved too. The Provincial Intelligence Centre in the Lower Mainland now collects and co-ordinates criminal intelligence across B.C.
Chisholm said the RCMP’s improved understanding of national and international threats and intelligence gathering in the last 10 years ensures police are aware of the potential for the kinds of threats that can rear up in any community.
“Intelligence-led policing is definitely a mantra of how we do business,” Chisholm said.
The Incident Command System has been a priority for Nanaimo Fire Rescue and the city since 2001.
The system was designed to provide co-ordinated command and communication in major emergencies, but was not applied in New York the day of the terrorist attacks. Had it been, hundreds of lives might have been saved.
Nanaimo Fire Rescue works with other emergency agencies and private industry to adopt the Incident Command System, but few opportunities arise to put it into practice.
“When you need a higher level of co-ordination and interagency co-operation, that’s when the system becomes more important,” said Ron Lambert, Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief.
The last full inter-agency disaster scenario practised was SAREX 2010, held in April 2010 when a mock fire broke out on the B.C. Ferries vessel MV Quinsam and its passengers had to abandon ship and be rescued from Nanaimo Harbour.
Another scenario is planned for Oct. 16.
“We’re making a lot of headway and the connection with 9-11 is we’re continuing with lessons learned there,” Lambert said.