Approximately $400,000 has been cut from a Vancouver-based emergency preparedness program, a move critics say leaves the city more vulnerable in the case of a natural disaster.
The funding comes from the federal government's Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP), which pays for 75 per cent of the cost of Vancouver's Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) program. Five such teams across Canada were funded to the tune of $2.1 million, all of which was axed in the federal omnibus budget bill.
The team, made up of 100 local firefighters, police officers and engineers, train on the weekends outside their day jobs. They have equipment to aid communities with search and rescue, water purification, first aid and shelter-enough to maintain operations "off the grid" for a full 10 days. But without this funding, the team is worried it won't be able to respond to emergencies in the future.
"Our funding model wasn't great-that money was kind of the glue that held everything together," said Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney, who heads the Vancouver team. He speculated that, based on Vancouver's current economic situation, the money to keep the team going is unlikely to be found through other sources.
McKearney noted that the team had often responded to building collapses and provided search and rescue services.
According to Julie Carmichael, spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Public Safety, the costs of emergency preparedness should be borne at the municipal level, rather than by the federal government. "We will not spend money on initiatives that are not necessary," Carmichael wrote in an email.
Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr brought a motion to city council urging it to oppose the cuts. "From a citizen's point of view it's ironic the federal government says they're going to cut JEPP just at a time when we're needing the kind of services that JEPP supports," said Carr, referring to the recent flood warnings for many communities along the Fraser River. On Friday, McKearney said the Vancouver team was under alert status in case riverside communities affected by flooding needed emergency assistance.
The funding won't peter out fully until 2013, but if similar flooding occurs next summer, McKearney believes that those same communities will be out of luck. "If we can no longer train our members to acceptable standards... then that will severely scale down the size of our team," said McKearney. "Without the money, we're [also] going to have a serious look at the amount of equipment we maintain."
Flood threats aren't the only sort of emergency that the HUSAR team responds to-they also have equipment on the ready to respond to earthquakes. According to UBC professor Ian McKendry, most of Vancouver is at a serious risk for flooding, landslides and tsunamis in the event of an earthquake, a situation also referenced by Carr in her council motion.
Carr hopes that the city can find funding to continue the program, but she isn't optimistic. "I'm asking [city] staff to report back so we could check the status of the budget," said Carr. "I'm sure hoping I get support."