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Laura King   

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July 2, 2013, Toronto - Let's agree on what we can agree on. Without starting a political debate about who is to blame or why, there is no question the North American climate is changing.

July 2, 2013, Toronto – Let's agree on what we can agree on. Without starting a political debate about who is to blame or why, there is no question the North American climate is changing.

Less snow and milder winters. Earlier, warmer springs. More severe summer storms and tornadoes. Drought in one region, floods in another and, a year later, vice versa. A once-in-a-century weather event – Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – followed seven years later by, gee, a once-a-century event, Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Climate change? I don't have a fine-arts degree but I can appreciate a masterpiece, or great literature; some things – such as climate change – fall into the you-know-it-when-you-see-it category. Over the weekend, as I edited stories for our August issue about the floods in Alberta, and my Twitter feed went haywire with word of the 19 line-of-duty deaths in a wildland fire in Arizona, I wondered how to bring context from the world of first response to the incendiary issue of climate change.

Setting aside what appears to be a stunning lack of flood preparedness in a world-class city such as Calgary (as the Globe and Mail bluntly pointed out in its Canada Day editorial) – which is built largely on the floodplain of the Bow and Elbow rivers – I pondered the role of first response and emergency management agencies in making sure municipalities are better protected against natural disasters in order to lower the risks for citizens and for police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel.


Is climate change, and Ottawa’s position on it, an issue for fire service leadership – labour or management, or both – to embrace? Is it the basis for demands for funding as first responders are put at higher risk to protect the public during and after natural disasters?

Is it both? Or neither?

On Sunday, while many Canadians enjoyed long-weekend festivities, those 19 Arizona firefighters died in an unimaginable way. One was just 21 years old. Another leaves behind four children under six. Could that have been Kelowna or Slave Lake or northern Saskatchewan or suburban Halifax, Canadian centres that have all experienced dangerous wildfires in recent years? Absolutely.

Weary of penny-wise, pound-foolish funding and political photo-op-grandstanding by federal politicians, a frustrated voice rose from flood-weary Alberta over the weekend.

Brian Cornforth heads Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services and is the president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association. He was operations chief in hardest-hit High River immediately after the flooding, and saw first-hand the devastation, the overwhelmed resources and the words-not-money federal approach to emergency management. And the usually soft-spoken fire chief lost it.

He eviscerated federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the Stephen Harper Conservatives for slashing funds for emergency preparedness and urban search and rescue teams.

"The federal government, they can just stay in Ottawa,” Cornforth told Postmedia News after Toews and his demanding and security-conscious entourage visited High River. “They got in the way.”

Cornforth told Postmedia that Ottawa “talks a good game on public safety but hasn’t been much of a partner.”

The story said Cornforth was “sickened by near daily reports of misspending at the highest levels of government, when funding is being cut for things like emergency preparedness and urban search and rescue.”

All this just a year after the Elliot Lake mall collapse in Ontario – the response to that incident comes under the microscope later this summer at a commission of inquiry – and the public outing of Ottawa’s decision to quietly scrap the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program, which partially funded Canada’s heavy urban search and rescue teams. Almost 60 members of Vancouver’s HUSAR team have been sent to Calgary to help its team with humanitarian work and pumping operations. Vancouver’s fire chief, John McKearney, and others, are working to have $1.6 million in federal funding restored for the teams – you’d think that after Elliot Lake and now, the Alberta flooding – both incidents in which the HUSAR teams played integral roles – that federal dollars would be flowing like a . . . well, let’s not use a river simile . . . how about like a Senate expense account.

Meantime, Cornforth's voice, no doubt, will resonate nationally and sting in the Office of the Prime Minister, where Harper likes to burnish his Alberta street cred at every opportunity.

The heartland of big oil, big conservatism and big western capitalism was under water. I’m betting Harper is willing once again to don his Stetson and cowboy boots and ham it up – as much a stiff, conservative prime minister can – during the come-hell-or-high-water version of the Calgary Stampede. What’s he willing to do for the first responders who – literally – bailed out his home town?

The United States learned from Hurricane Katrina how not to respond to a natural disaster. Now, the emergency response model employed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is efficient, effective and properly funded.

Maybe if the fire-service leadership follows Cornforth's lead and raises its collective voice, Ottawa will hear it over the din of Senate spending scandals and ante up. Come hell or high water.

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