- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A few months ago, in mid-February, Canada and the United States announced a new bilateral “Civil Assistance Plan.”

U.S. Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart who commands the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) described the plan as follows in a USNORTHCOM press release issued in mid-February:

“This document is a unique, bilateral military plan to align our respective national military plans to respond quickly to the other nation’s requests for military support of civil authorities. Unity of effort during bilateral support for civil support operations such as floods, forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and effects of a terrorist attack, in order to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate damage to property, is of the highest importance, and we need to be able to have forces that are flexible and adaptive to support rapid decisionmaking in a collaborative environment.”

The roles of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Canada’s Public Safety Canada are recognized in the plan. It appears to be a superb 21st century blueprint, while extending the strong ties that have existed for decades between the two countries.

“The two domestic commands - NORAD and USNORTHCOM in the U.S. and the Canadian Command in Canada - established strong bilateral ties well before the signing of the Civil Assistance Plan. The two commanders and their staffs meet regularly, collaborate on contingency planning and participate in related annual exercises,” said the release.

While the new plan may look good on paper and suggests much improved communications and coordination between the two countries in times of emergency, a noticeable communications gap still lingers. Evidence of this first surfaced when Maine’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Bill Libby (also commissioner of Maine’s Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management) told the press weeks after the plan was announced that it caught him completely by surprise and that he was never contacted by USNORTHCOM or Homeland Security let alone any of his Canadian counterparts about it in advance.

When record floods hit both Maine and the Province of New Brunswick in late April and early May in the St. John Valley borderlands, this communications gap became harder to ignore.

Canada activated the International Charter / Space and Major Disasters in late April so a number of surveillance satellites could be tasked to provide high-resolution satellite imagery of the flood zone in New Brunswick to Public Safety Canada and to provincial emergency management personnel.

It turns out the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and emergency management personnel in Aroostook County that shares a border with New Brunswick were left completely in the dark about the satellite-based surveillance under way in Canada. Maine simply relied on imagery obtained from several aircraft.

While the plan may speak of a “collaborative environment,” the 2008 flood reminds everyone that whatever may exist for U.S. and Canadian military planners may not be extend to civilian emergency management and disaster response personnel. Not yet anyway.

Back in 2003, when the University of Maine Homeland Security Lab hosted a meeting of the Atlantic Region Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET) Communications Working Group, this writer and other speakers talked at length about the need for shared satellite assets, interoperable communications, mobile communications platforms and other related topics. Representatives from numerous U.S. and Canadian agencies assigned to the border attended.

Five years later, it is clear that, despite considerable progress, much work remains to be done on the U.S.-Canadian border.

Peter J. Brown, a freelance writer from Maine, writes frequently about the role of satellites in disaster response. He has worked on satellite technology and emergency communications-related projects with the American Medical Association’s Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response, the Maine Emergency Management Agency and others. He has also worked on improved alerts and warnings for the deaf and hard of hearing in Maine.

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