Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world forever. Fire services worldwide stood up and noticed how vulnerable they are to terrorist attacks. The common thread that holds fire services together is the immeasurable willingness to put others first while facing danger or peril. The problem is that when people truly want to inflict harm, they are motivated by evil, and there may be nothing anyone can do to stop them. Compare this situation to two equally powerful magnets that are polar opposites, and no one wins. This is what really scared North America – there was no obvious way to defeat this new threat. This global increase in terror against the innocent has shaken our core values in much the way the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground. There are people who want to kill us because of the way we express our freedom and live in it.
How Canadians reacted to 9-11 sharply contrasts with the American uprising of protectionism. Look no further than the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the subsequent policy, and funding shift away from FEMA and all things disaster management. We’ve witnessed this in the heightened coverage of terrorism, airport security changes, and even in racial profiling of anyone who may look like the al-Qaida terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers and crashed loaded planes into the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Penn., murdering about 3,000 people, including 343 firefighters.
A disaster-management policy change from an all-hazards approach to a more singular focus on terrorism (bio-terrorism, cyber security) in the United States has been significant since the attacks. The response to Hurricane Katrina is an example of the failure of this new direction. The paradigm shift has been so severe that disaster managers, researchers and officials have told me pre-9-11 policies and funding for comprehensive, all-hazards approaches may never return. America is afraid of its own shadow, and with its foreign policy of being the world’s police force, its citizens arguably have a right to feel this way.
This is important, because in the United States and Canada the first line of defence against natural (or man-made) disasters – such as tornadoes, floods, wildfires, hurricanes and pandemics – is the fire service. Before either country’s federal government takes over and sends in the cavalry to deal with a natural disaster, fire services have been down and dirty for 72 hours, completing response objectives. The response capability of the Canadian fire service is so broad and comprehensive it is truly amazing. This year alone, Manitoba and Alberta firefighters have given heroic efforts in flood and forest firefighting disaster responses. We’ve been bleeding for our country for years through disaster response; the Canadian fire service has quietly supported our American neighbours while maintaining a balanced approach to disaster management. Canada has taken CBRNE, terrorism, security and natural-hazard management initiatives in every province and territory in the last decade. As a nation, we are more aware, and as prepared as many of the G8 and G20 nations that we call allies. We’ve strengthened our borders, and taken measures to prepare for everything from the lone-wolf attack – as horrifically seen in Norway – and strengthened our early-warning system capabilities for weather-related events, all while trying to make our communities safer and more resilient.
The Canadian fire service continues to be on the front lines of fighting disasters and should continue to make strong arguments to be at the table when policy and decision makers decide the who, what, where and how. It’s truly not a matter of if it will happen to Canada, rather when, and from what angle we will get hit. Sharing a border with the United States makes us guilty by association in some eyes, and we are, in fact, just as vulnerable. From recovering from the earthquake that will inevitably hit the Pacific coast of North America, to dealing with a biological agent, we need to have a strong voice. So on this 10-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, take a moment to think about what you and others have sacrificed for your country and how proud it makes you to be a firefighter. We truly stand on guard for thee.
Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department and is completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University. Jay also works at the University of Manitoba as a research assistant in the Disaster Research Institute. E-mail Jay at
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