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The status of preparedness

It can be said that we learn the most from past tragedies. Sept. 11, 2001, will be forever remembered as a lesson in how vulnerable we were as a society and as first responders. Did we learn anything from that tragedy and are we better prepared today than we were 10 years ago?

September 7, 2011 
By Andy Glynn

It can be said that we learn the most from past tragedies. Sept. 11, 2001, will be forever remembered as a lesson in how vulnerable we were as a society and as first responders. Did we learn anything from that tragedy and are we better prepared today than we were 10 years ago? Yes, absolutely.

Much has happened over the past decade. Some changes have been subtle while others are much more noticeable. Whether the changes of the last 10 years are a direct result of the events of 9-11, or whether the events of that day were simply a catalyst for change that was inevitable, is up for debate. But one thing is certain: 9-11 – and the subsequent white-powder scares – changed the way we do business.

In Ontario, we witnessed an increased awareness around emergency preparedness. Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) almost doubled in size. A large number of fire chiefs were appointed as community emergency management co-ordinators (CEMC), responsible for their municipalities’ emergency management programs. There were changes in Ontario’s Emergency Measures Act (now the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act), which requires, among many things, each municipality to perform tasks such as hazard identification and risk assessment. Our need to more adequately prepare became palpable, and, after 9-11, the province reacted by implementing programs to better prepare for large-scale emergencies such as terrorist incidents.

Increasingly, the province recognized a need for greater protective measures to address the potential for a similar 9-11-type emergency. As a result of 9-11, through the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), two of the province’s most visible programs were funded: provincial Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, Nuclear (CBRN) teams and the Toronto Heavy Urban Search And Rescue (HUSAR) team.

The CBRN teams include the Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor fire departments as Level 3 teams, as well as departments in Thunder Bay, Sault St. Marie, North Bay, Peterborough, Cornwall and Waterloo Region as Level 2 teams. These teams have trained to integrate and provide assistance at the local level.

Toronto’s HUSAR team was also the recipient of government funding earmarked for making us safer. Although the HUSAR group was in its infancy prior to 2001, funding became immediately available after 9-11 to expand it into a full HUSAR team. The team is now capable of deploying across the country, assisting local first responders with structural collapse. All of these teams remain in effect today.

The OFM also received additional funding with the purpose of developing programs aimed at better preparing and supporting first responders in large-scale and human-caused emergencies. One of the programs was the OFM Emergency Management and Response Unit. This unit acquired the technical expertise and specialized equipment to support first responders in the field. 

At the first-responder level, there was a much more vigilant approach to incidents, especially immediately after 9-11 and during the white-powder/suspicious-package calls. Because there were so many calls for unknown white powder, larger departments developed Biohazard Rapid Assessment Teams, comprising personnel from police, fire and EMS. These teams would respond and perform a threat assessment before initiating a full hazardous-materials team response.

The fire service has always responded to hazardous materials releases but since 9-11 there has been a twist: is the incident an intentional release aimed at killing people? What traditionally was always a fire-service responsibility is now a shared responsibility with police and, in some cases, EMS. The differences between a Toxic Industrial Chemical (TIC) accidental release and a CBRNE (the E was later added for Explosive) intentional release makes for a great debate among first responders. Regardless, police and EMS have increased their capabilities for responding to CBRNE events. In fact, the Ontario Provincial Police has an entire division capable of responding to CBRNE events and/or structural collapse. EMS has also created tactical medics capable of entry into certain CBRNE events. In several municipalities, cross training in CBRNE among all three agencies is the norm.

After 9-11, many of Ontario’s urban fire departments began to devote significant resources to preparing for CBRNE incidents. Purchasing detection equipment and focusing on mass decontamination, along with training all their members in terrorism awareness, became a top priority. In smaller municipalities where training and outfitting a department with the appropriate equipment became cost-prohibitive, departments were able to rely on mutual aid or the province for support.

Response to CBRNE was not the only change that occurred – the way the fire service responds to highrise calls may have changed as well. The strategy and tactics developed for a standard highrise incident underwent review to determine if there were any changes necessary to address the potential for a 9-11-type incident. Staging of fire apparatuses, location of the command post, communications, evacuating occupants, fire control and pre-planning all became topics of discussion and likely resulted in changes to the way fire officers size up the situation, and to departmental policies and procedures.
There is no question that the fire service has evolved significantly since the events of 9-11. As is the case with all public-sector services, however, budgets are finite and not every program or recommendation comes to fruition. Despite this reality, investments have been made over the past decade to help ensure that the fire service and other first responders are much more aware, educated and better prepared to protect ourselves and the public we serve. If, as a profession, we continue to respond to crises in this manner, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, will not have been in vain.

After spending 14 years as a firefighter in a municipal department, Andy Glynn joined the Office of the Fire Marshal, where he served as an instructor, program specialist and acting manager of the OFM’s Emergency Management and Response Unit. In 2006, he became a deputy fire chief with the Town of Oakville, where he has held responsibility for training, fire prevention and professional development. He also acts as community emergency management co-ordinator. Andy is a certified Fire Protection Engineering Technologist. Contact him at

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