Ontario redefines emergency preparedness after 9/11

TORONTO — Like most people in North America, Virginia West has her own story about where she was on Sept. 11, 2001. She also has a story about how she got back.

West, the deputy minister of Public Safety and Policing Services at Ontario’s Ministry of Public Safety and Security, said she had been attending a government conference near the beaches of White Point, N.S., when news of the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center came through. Since Nova Scotia is an hour ahead of New York, the conference was well underway, and Ontario Solicitor General David Turnbull was trying to convince his colleagues that Canada should create a national version of the province’s sex offender registry.

“”An assistant came up to me and whispered, ‘Looks like we’re going to be the story of day,'”” West told an audience at Showcase Ontario 2002 Wednesday. Soon after, Turnbull and West found themselves stranded on the tranquil sands of White Point while terrorism fears spread. “”Our reality changed at that point in time.””

West joined Turnbull on a Challenger jet back to Ontario with federal Justice Minister Anne McClelland on one of the few non-military flights that were cleared for takeoff after the Sept. 11 attacks. There, she said she and her colleagues began planning for an improved provincial emergency preparedness strategy that would take them beyond the traditional scope of their jobs.

“”Ordinarily, for us ’emergency preparedness’ meant responding to natural disasters, like the (1997) ice storm,”” West said. “”Now it was more than that.””

In the year since the Twin Towers fell, West said the Ontario government has undertaken a number of initiatives to support the mitigation, planning, response and recovery activities that could take place were the terrorists to attack the province. This includes the expansion of the Ontario Provincial Police’s (OPP’s) hate crimes unit, the establishment of Criminal Intelligence Services Ontario and an investment of $3.5 million towards Ontario’s anti-terrorism unit. Ontario has also increased funding for the Ontario Fire College and introduced IT virtual reality equipment to improve training for disaster scenarios.

“”As we’ve created new IT systems in Ontario we’ve also become much more cognizant of the security risks associated with them,”” West said. “”We’ve been more concerned both in terms of the applications as well as the behaviours of those who have access to (emergency-related) information.””

Though IT security systems are vulnerable to prospective terrorists, West said the government was equally concerned with biological weapons. In some cases, she said, germ warfare could be much cheaper than IT or even nuclear warfare and capable of a more devastating impact. This is partly because there is typically a 40- to 50-day delay before biological threats are properly recognized, she said.

Beyond investments to government departments and law enforcement agencies, Ontario also announced on Tuesday the establishment of The Community Emergency Response Volunteers (CERV) Ontario program. West described CERV as a network of neighbourhood-based, multi-functional teams of volunteers trained in basic emergency management principles and skills. The government has allocated $1 million annually for CERV.

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