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16 emergency managers on improving Canada’s DEM system

Interviews with disaster and emergency management practitioners and academics in Canada identified key areas for improvement.

September 28, 2023 
By David Etkin, Domini Baldasaro, and Stephanie Etkin

To better understand how Canada’s public sector disaster and emergency management (DEM) system is functioning, we interviewed 16 experienced Canadian emergency managers from the academic and practitioner communities, including all three levels of government. Each interviewee had a minimum of 10 years of experience and was chosen either by the authors or by the contract authority in Public Safety Canada.

The interviewees were provided with questionnaire context, asked five broad questions, and were encouraged to explore any aspect of the Canadian DEM system that they felt was important.

For context, we let interviewees know that we are particularly interested in federal-provincial-territorial-municipal systems and interactions. Their responses could address issues such as:

  • levels of support and interaction at different levels of government
  • training and education
  • standards and professionalization
  • DEM culture
  • DEM structure based upon pillars of mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery
  • financial and human capacity
  • governance structure

We first asked interviewees what roles they have been in that are related to emergency management – researcher, educator, or practitioner – and for how many years. We then posed to them the following broad questions:


Question #1: What characterizes a good/efficient/effective emergency management system?

Question #2: In what ways do you think the Canadian emergency management system (CEMS) could be more efficient and effective, given its current design?

Question #3: What potential modifications to the design of the CEMS would improve its efficiency and effectiveness?

Question #4: Do you have any suggestions for a significantly different CEMS model, if you think that its current design is a barrier to achieving its goals?

Question #5: What kind of changes or trends have you been observing in the CEMS, and what are your thoughts about them in terms of them being helpful or obstructive?

On average the interviews lasted for about one hour and were transcribed for analysis. The transcriptions were sent to each interviewee for vetting and a thematic analysis was then done for each interview. Not surprisingly, there were a number of recurring themes throughout the interviews, with some divergence of opinion on a few topics. The following section summarizes the key findings from the interviews using three primary themes: making it work better, improving the design, and trends in DEM.

Key survey findings: Making the CEMS work better

  1. Emergency managers are viewed as being regularly excluded from critical discussions/activities.
  2. There needs to be much more networking, both horizontally and vertically. Too much work is done in silos.
  3. There is a disconnect between science, practice, and policy.
  4. There is a strong desire for Public Safety Canada to play a greater role as a national leader and to offer a clearer vision. They are seen as too disconnected from the provinces and municipalities.
  5. There is a desire for Public Safety Canada to become a national regulating body for emergency management in Canada.
  6. There is a need for Public Safety Canada to provide stronger tools and improved data-sharing technology, such as flood maps.
  7. There is a need for Public Safety Canada to provide more support for co-ordination and advance planning.
  8. There is a disconnect between government and the communities that they serve.
  9. Networking is often driven by informal relationships, as opposed to being institutional.
  10. The CEMS works well for smaller events, but is not well designed to deal with larger disasters.
  11. The use of foresight analysis and worst-case scenario planning should be emphasized.
  12. There is a need for a national training centre in DEM, not only for those functioning specifically in DEM roles but also for senior management and politicians who have DEM responsibilities within their portfolios.
  13. With the exception of recurrent, small-scale risks, the industry continues to fail to learn the lessons of past disasters.
  14. DEM is not a high enough priority in government.
  15. There still exists an overemphasis on response as compared to mitigation, prevention, preparedness, and recovery.
  16. DEM has insufficient resources, both financially and with respect to staffing.
  17. Vulnerability is insufficiently understood and addressed. The CEMS prioritizes the less vulnerable.
  18. DEM suffers from not being a recognized profession, and from a lack of awareness within the general population and government. This results in people occupying DEM roles without sufficient education and training in this discipline, perpetuating the overemphasis on response.
  19. More work needs to be done on DEM standards. The limited capacity of smaller communities must be recognized within these standards.
  20. A lack of trust both between citizens and the government was viewed as a barrier to improved Emergency Management, and trust lost between levels of government due to communication breakdowns was similarly flagged.

Key survey findings: Improving the design of the CEMS

  1. Several interviewees found it difficult to define what the CEMS is, including those with many years of experience working inside of the system.
  2. The CEMS system is based on bureaucratic and political boundaries that were viewed as being misaligned with disaster boundaries.
  3. Respondents shared concerns about how political interference in DEM functions detrimentally affects the practice of DEM.
  4. There is a need for more centralization in support, planning, risk assessment, legislation, and training. Several interviewees suggested that Public Safety Canada become more like FEMA. One interviewee felt training should be more decentralized.
  5. Three interviewees expressed a desire for a volunteer citizen force to aid in response.
  6. In relation to Canada’s readiness for very large events or fat-tailed risks, there was a shared sense that neither the systems nor the people are appropriately prepared.
  7. Two interviewees suggested the creation of an independent review body following disasters, similar to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. This could provide a process to institutionalize lessons learned and to create legal requirements to improve standards related to disaster risk.

Key survey findings: Trends in the CEMS

  1. The increased numbers of individuals completing DEM educational programs, and the increased options for education in the DEM field were viewed as reflective of positive momentum.
  2. For some respondents, a shift in gender balance was viewed as being a noteworthy change, while one emphasized that in spite of the increased representation of women, the field remains insufficiently diverse.
  3. The DEM industry was viewed as evolving at a pace slower than the challenges it faces.


Disasters are a serious problem for society and one that is getting worse as a result of climate change, the continued creation of novel entities, increases in exposure, and for many, increased vulnerability. Understanding and addressing them is complicated because high-consequence events happen with disturbing frequency, but are often not amenable to analysis via common risk assessment methodologies.

The Canadian emergency management system emphasizes two of the three basic organizational structures (centralized and decentralized), but does not incorporate polycentrism in a significant way. Polycentrism is, however, an important strategy in managing complex events that cross bureaucratic, organizational, and disciplinary boundaries. This deficit was frequently noted in a set of interviews with 16 emergency managers, who discussed problems related to silos within the DEM system.

There are many ways in which the system as it exists can be made to function better. Of particular importance are making DEM a higher priority within government, professionalizing the field of emergency management, providing it with increased resources, creating an executive training centre/think tank, making some aspects of the system more centralized, and superimposing a polycentric network on top of the current system through the use of a cluster-type model.

In many ways, the current Canadian DEM system is functioning well, particularly with respect to response. The very few lives lost due to emergencies in Canada is a testament to this. However, our capacity to deal with large, complex disasters can and should be greatly improved.

This project was funded by Public Safety Canada, Policy and Outreach Directorate, Emergency Management and Programs Branch, Contract No. 7261797.  

David Etkin will be sharing results from this project at the Ontario Disaster and Emergency Management Conference in Toronto in October.

David Etkin is a professor of disaster and emergency management at York University. Domini Baldasaro is a graduate student of disaster and emergency management at York University. Stephanie Etkin is an emergency management co-ordinator at the City of Toronto.

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