Preserving The Canadian Civil Defence / Emergency Preparedness History

Are you still waiting for the air raid siren?

A Brampton citizen recently asked me why we weren’t using the old “air raid sirens” to warn people when tornado alerts are sent out by Environment Canada. My first answer was that most alerts don’t actually lead to tornadoes, they only warn us of their possibility. If we were to sound a siren every time we get an alert, we would be activating the sirens probably 30 to 40 times a year and we have yet to have a tornado in Brampton. This will only lead to the “never cry wolf” kind of story.

Then, I started to think back about those sirens and wondered what happened to them. A bit of research and I found out that most were removed by the Department of National Defence (DND) back in the 1970s because they were rusting and becoming eyesores. The Federal Government had no money to maintain them. These sirens had been installed back in the 50s as part of the cold war effort to be prepared for air raids. Those sirens would give about twenty minutes advanced warning for people to take shelter in case of an enemy attack. With the change in technology, the air raids were replaced by the risk of nuclear missiles and with that the warning time went from twenty minutes to less than a minute. Evidently the sirens became obsolete under those conditions, hence the reasoning for cutting the maintenance budget.

Apparently there are a few left, some web sites show two in Toronto and a few in BC. DND admitted in an interview to the Toronto Star in 2007, that some may have been missed from the inventory. In fact, there was controversy as to who actually owned them. The Star called the City of Toronto, who referred them to the Province, who referred them to DND, who referred them back to the City of Toronto.

There was a time when the sirens made sense and the investment was justified. Times change however, and technology advances require us to constantly revisit the premise upon which we made a decision. In emergency management, much has changed as well. I started my emergency management career by having to pull out the emergency plan once a year, turn to the telephone list, and call everyone to make sure the phone numbers were still valid. Back then a blackberry was a fruit, a cell was a living organism, and a network was a social organization.

When I turned to embrace the field fully, I was first called an emergency planner. The function aimed at writing plans. It was a lonely function because nobody had any interest in participating in the planning. Plans were documents that rested on shelves and collected dust. Most of those who should have been using plans actually relied on their personal experience and hoped that they wouldn’t have to face something they had never encountered before. Situations did change and gradually got more complex, more devastating, and the responders started to turn to the plans, making us less lonely.

We then found out that planning was only part of the work. Plans needed to be shared, people needed to be trained on their uses, and the plans needed to be vetted by doing exercises. I became an emergency measures coordinator. The “measures” was part of the old legislation that would differentiate between the War Measures Act and the Peacetime Measures Act.

Once we had done everything we could to write plans – now with more input from those who would implement them – test the plans through exercises, and train the people, we thought that was it. Many of my peers stayed at that level. Then the concepts of prevention and mitigation came around, soon followed by recovery. We now had the next stage of our evolution. I became an emergency manager.

Again, many people seemed to think that this was it. We had reached the ultimate goal in this field. Surprise! We were not there yet.

Emergency Management deals with the physical aspect of emergencies. We build dams, we strengthen buildings, we rezone lands, we develop vaccines all for prevention purpose. We examine radars, we develop public alerting methodologies, we limit the speed of trains in urban surroundings, all for mitigation purposes. We build EOCs, we develop new communication technologies, we tell people what to stock for in their homes, all for preparedness purposes. We put out fires, we transport the wounded to hospitals, we redirect the traffic, we shelter the displaced, all in the response mode. Finally, we clean debris, we repair roads and bridges, we restore power, all in the recovery mode.

We are pretty good at managing all of this and the IMS is the ultimate tool in our arsenal. We can now celebrate our success. Or can we?

Way back even before my time, we used to send men to war, and expect them to get back to normal life when they came home, as if nothing had happened. When I was a kid, if I got hit by a bully, I would be told to suck it up and be a man. Today, we have Critical Incident Stress Management for our soldiers and first responders. Boys are now allowed to cry when they hurt, and bullying in unacceptable.

Emergency Management is all about the physical aspect, but the world has moved on to realize that the emotional and social aspect is just as important. We are now becoming resilience managers. We are now learning how to heal communities beyond cleaning up the debris and repairing the buildings. We now need to learn how to repair lives, how to heal broken ideals, how to recharge people who lost their dreams.

So where are you? Are you an emergency planner, an emergency measures coordinator, an emergency manager, or a budding resilience manager?

Are you still waiting for the air raid siren?