Terror Attacks in France: Is the North American Response Capacity Sufficient?

As our team at Emergency Solutions International has watched the most recent attacks on the citizens and the Government of France, remembering the hundreds of innocent who have been wounded or killed, we are saddened. We are apprehensive that in North America we are not prepared at the community interface for the potential risk that may be coming our way. The incident in Nice, France demonstrates that human intentional events, whatever their motivation, can be implemented in a simplistic and efficient manner and often in areas where the safety provided by security and emergency services is taken for granted. Canada, in particular, could be especially vulnerable to the new threat of seemingly random “lone wolf” attacks. This vulnerability is derived from an inadequate understanding of community risks, poor coordination between response entities, and arguably an insufficient level of financial and government support for response agencies.

Risk Assessment Based Capabilities

From the perspective of many experienced local response agency leaders, Canada as a nation relies too heavily upon municipally based incident response. Current capabilities are often not adequately funded or prepared to properly respond to the existing risk within the community, let alone the emerging risk of human intentional acts. In Canada, often local responders set their own goals and objectives and may not be connected to any regional, provincial or national capability.There have been few communities who can demonstrate a valid and current risk assessment process, which includes all forms of risk (natural, accidental, technological and human intentional) as well as, the potential outcome of public health and safety, and economic and environmental impacts that would result from an incident.Further, rarely are fixed site industry, trucking, shipping and rail transport adequately studied at the local level to ensure a proper response capability gap analysis is completed.Without understanding the existing and emerging risk within communities at the base level, it is difficult for local response agency leaders to demonstrate the need for greater regional and national support and cooperation during response.
An example of the potential impacts of a lack of preparation and disorganization within a multiple jurisdiction event is the 2015 fuel leak incident involving the M/V Marathassa, which polluted and disrupted the Port of Vancouver. A tabletop exercise exploring the implications of a large-scale marine oil spill was planned and organized to occur just weeks after the M/V Marathassa spill occurred (Nuka Research and Planning Group, LLC., 2015). Compared to the total risk present at the Port of Vancouver this spill was a comparatively small event. What followed the incident was publically scrutinized confusion in relation to who was responsible for the emergency response and environmental remediation. This confusion resulted in a painfully delayed and unorganized response as measured by the expectations of Canadian citizens. It quickly became obvious to observers there was a lack of coordination and absence of accountability between ill prepared leaders.
As a result, the incident acted as a wake up call forCanadians and contributed to the completion of a planning workshop by the City of Vancouver. A review was conducted by the Canadian Coast Guard highlighting lessons learned, gaps and vulnerabilities caused by human activity within English Bay, which is an environmentally sensitive, economically and socially important area (Nuka Research and Planning Group, LLC., 2015 and Canadian Coast Guard, 2015). Regardless of the follow up work, there was damage to public confidence and efforts were perceived as being too little, too late. As a result of the English Bay spill, it was highlighted that common policies, procedures, and systems for communications are necessary for effective interoperability of regional responders and volunteers (Canadian Coast Guard, 2015).Of the utmost importance is to have certainty of municipal, regional and federal roles within the Canadian Incident Command System, Unified Command structure and acknowledgement of who are the designated representatives throughout all levels of operation and partnerships (Canadian Coast Guard, 2015).
As described, multiple factors contributed to the inadequacy of the response in English Bay but in the context of the recent Bastille Day attack in France, imagine if this Vancouver incident was a human intentional act that was combined with dozens of other planned attacks across the country. Consider that France had dedicated a tremendous amount of resources, declaring a national state of emergency prior to the attack in Nice, in order to be ready to respond should the intelligence and enforcement community fail. Imagine that Canadian responders had not been on high alert and strategically focused like they have been in France for months.

We as a North American planning and response community often do not possess the:

  1. proper risk assessment and supporting information based upon credible research, ensuring a competent capability analysis and an informed response;
  2. integrated technological solutions to link Emergency Operations Centres and ensure timely information sharing with stakeholders and the media during management of complex, long duration, and simultaneous events; and, beyond all,
  3. a force of local responders that is organized, trained, equipped and has the depth of numbers to cope with complex, long duration, and simultaneous human intentional events.

Financial Viability of Locally Based Community Response


Since the 1980s there has been continuous financial pressure at the local level to eliminate the costs associated with emergency response services. Often these cuts are justified by utilizing the elementary notion of assessing the number of responders as a percentage of population served, rather than a proper risk assessment conducted within the community. It is easy to see such a simplistic model for determining financial support of emergency response services does not incorporate the implications of emerging threats, inclusive of random human intentional events, nor the necessity for services to operate in multiple jurisdictions. Since the immediate years following 9-11, funding for personnel training and equipment has steadily declined. Positions for fire fighters, hazardous materials technicians, police officers, paramedics and medical first responders have often been reduced by 30-40% of the number of responders (as opposed to the overall cost).

Training opportunities that provide experience to responders beyond their local regions have disappeared as funding has decreased. In the Canadian context, the Canadian Emergency Management College in Ottawa where provincial emergency management leaders and municipal representatives attended Canadian standardized courses has been closed. This college provided the opportunity and financial support for national exchange of knowledge and experience as well as development of emergency management leadership. Local Chief Officers are today in the unenviable position of fighting in vain for training and equipment resources they need, but are not provided. Arguably, beyond the priority of criminal investigation regarding human intentional incidents, it will be the fire services and often fire service based paramedics that will be stretched to the limit when they are called to respond to multiple events within their communities.

Beyond the importance of having the required team members available to make an adequate initial response, call back of off-duty staff to serious long duration incidents is limited by the same factors. We have seen that with long duration events the pool of people, particularly key people, on-call during off-shifts, has been diminished. Continuity of response, redundancy of Command, and availability of individuals with experience in key roles are areas that must be considered when comparing community capability to the level of risk.
The delta between the risk in the community and the capability to respond is rarely obvious to the public on a day-to-day basis. This is particularly the case for complex, long duration, or simultaneous events. The public however, expects that when these events occur within their community, or their neighbouring communities, that the necessary depth of response will occur in a timely manner and that response agencies will be connected region-to-region and agency-to-agency.
Often the public expectation is not fulfilled. The fire services within North America have been decimated and are no longer operating at a level commensurate with the risk within the communities they serve. I would challenge leaders of these communities who disagree, to quantitatively show a correlation of diminished risk within their communities, that would correspond with the percentage of the cuts made to their service. For instance if the fire service has been cut by 40% of the firefighters, paramedics, and responding command staff, is there a corresponding study that shows how the risk within the community was decreased by 40% prior to the cuts to capability?This area of staffing vulnerability, created by the cities making these decisions, will be one of the criteria examined by those who are looking to perform intentional attacks. Within these cities with low response capability the human and economic impact will be the greatest.
In our current model, we are relying on municipal capabilities to be regional players in a large-scale crisis situation. This is no longer possible with the diminished capabilities at the local level. Similar to what has occurred in France, we will continue to see the shift in incidents moving from attacks using firearms to other simpler means available to perpetrators. One of the easiest and most effective tools for large-scale human intentional attacks is the setting of fires and the release of chemicals. After decades of cuts and lack of centralized federal and provincial led response, it is time to re-examine our existing and emerging community based risk inclusive of the human intentional reality that France is facing. We must ask the questions that the public would ask after a sizeable incident or attack:
  • Is our current level of response capability at the depth needed given the risk in the community?
  • In the event of widespread, simultaneous incidents are our local responders prepared to work beyond their own municipality as part of a coordinated provincial, state, federal or international response?
  • Are our response agencies supported financially to respond adequately?


Canadian Coast Guard. 2015. Independent Review of the M/V Marathassa Fuel Oil Spill Environmental Response Operation. Retrieved from http://www.ccg-gcc.gc.ca/folios/00018/docs/Marat hassa_Report-eng.pdf

Hache, V. 2016. Digital Image. Retrieved from http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/suspect-in-nice-bastille-day-attack-identified-by-french-media-w429331.

Nuka Research and Planning Group, LLC. 2015. English Bay Oil Spill Debrief and Tanker Scenario Planning Workshop. Report to the Cityof Vancouver. Retrieved from http://vancouver.ca/images/ web/pipeline/NUKA-Oil-Spill-Debrief-and-Scenario-Workshop.pdf

About the author:

Mark leads the ESI team in conducting risk assessments, training, program, and plan review, exercise scenario development, exercise facilitation, and evaluation as well as compiling final After Action Review documentation and recommendations. Under Mark’s leadership, there have been six (6) Federal research and development projects conceived and executed by the ESI team. Service has been provided for various critical infrastructures, such as Port Saint John, Point Lepreau Generating Station, Canaport Liquefied Natural Gas, Saint John Energy, as well as corporations like Atlantic Potash, Mead Johnson Nutrition, and the Mosaic Company.