Alarm sounds for program cuts

Ben Ingram/Staff Writer / Staff writer
June 3, 2012 01:00 AM

The Sunshine Coast Emergency Program just received delivery of a satellite radio telephone (MSAT). This mobile device provides satellite telephone services to the emergency operations centre (EOC) and first responders in the event of a disaster. The MSAT is also a satellite radio that will enable the Sunshine Coast Regional District EOC to contact other municipalities, provincial agencies and health authorities using Emergnet, an emergency satellite network. Fifty per cent of the funding for this project came from the federal government through the joint emergency preparedness program.

The cancellation of federal funding for a preparedness program "will make us a less resilient and more vulnerable community," warned the Sunshine Coast Regional District's (SCRD) emergency program co-ordinator Bill Elsner.

Elsner described the federal government's cancellation of the joint emergency preparedness program (JEPP) as "devastating," saying the impact on some local governments could be disastrous.

A cost-sharing initiative, JEPP has allowed local governments to split the bill with Ottawa when purchasing emergency equipment, conducting planning exercises or training their responders.

It was Friday, April 13, when municipal governments across Canada were informed that program would be terminated. Also on the cutting block is funding for Canada's five heavy urban search and rescue (HUSAR) teams, including one stationed in Vancouver.

"In the event of a large scale disaster, locally, provincially, nationally or internationally, that resource is not going to be available - unless there's another source of funding for it," Elsner said.

Federal contributions for JEPP will end in 2013, according to Public Safety Canada.

Next year, the SCRD will have to make the choice: cut the emergency preparedness program or finance it using other sources, like taxation.

So far, JEPP has helped by paying 50 per cent of the cost for equipment like satellite radios, emergency generators, office equipment and the purchase of a mobile emergency operations vehicle used in search and rescue operations.

Elsner estimated that JEPP had given the Coast $70,000 over the past decade for equipment purchases, training, planning and conducting assessments.

"Next year I won't be able to apply for anything and there's no other place to go. There are no other funding formulas available for local government," he said of the cuts that seemed to occur "without much conversation or debate."

According to John Weston, West Vancouver - Sun-shine Coast - Sea to Sky MP, the program has been built to capacity. With federal contributions ending next year, he said communities will have time to respond to the cuts.

"There's not an unexpected pulling out of funds; it's just that the program won't be extended," he said. "No matter where you cut, there's obviously going to be some virtuous use of the funds that will suffer."

Weston said that JEPP had cost the federal government $170 million since 1980. The program was designed to build capacity and Weston said it had done just that, making it a worthy target for deficit reduction measures.

"The Sunshine Coast is getting support from Ottawa. The distance is regularly being shrunk and this specific decision shouldn't be looked at in isolation," Weston said.

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