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Government crisis response centre outdated, inefficient and understaffed, audit warns

Dec 17, 2016

[From CBC News]

The federal government's crisis response centre is outdated, understaffed and "inadequate" for co-ordinating emergency situations such as national security threats or natural disasters, a new audit warns.

In 2015, the Government Operations Centre (GOC) was called on to triage more then 5,000 incidents. Of those, more than 500 were deemed to be of national interest, requiring a risk assessment, planning and co-ordinated response, making it a vital nerve centre.

But a Public Safety Canada audit found persistent problems — even after a 2010 review revealed "widespread confusion and uncertainty" about the operation centre's mandate and its ability to fulfil its role.

The latest audit assessed the policies, processes, controls and protocols the GOC uses to respond to and manage emergency events ranging from flooding and industrial accidents to acts of terrorism and cyber events. It was completed in October 2016 and recently published online.

People interviewed for the audit identified challenges with communications, outdated technology and the ability to staff up quickly, the so-called "surge capacity" required to respond to emergencies.

But the interviewees cited the current physical infrastructure — the building, its fixtures, equipment and utilities systems — as posing the greatest risk.

'Inadequate' facilities, operational risks

Despite a long-identified need and business case for a new location, the review found the Government Operations Centre remains in facilities "that have been deemed to be inadequate."

"From an operational perspective, the principal risk to the operation centre's ability to fulfil its mandate is that current infrastructure would likely be unable to support the concurrent management of two or more events," the report warns. 

The audit found outdated technology is hampering work, including the main software system. While it's intended to help share incident data and information among federal, provincial and territorial operations centres, it is certified only to manage unclassified information.

Physical infrastructure is also sub-par, from electrical wiring that doesn't meet requirements to physical space that doesn't allow for proper security zones, and creates "operational risks related to the handling of classified information."

Reports of confusion, chaos

The audit was carried out between April 1, 2015 and March 31, 2016. It followed a series of media reports about confusion and chaos at the GOC the day of the shootings at the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill on Oct. 22, 2014.

Parliament-attack-shooting

Armed RCMP officers approach Centre Block on Parliament Hill on Oct. 22, 2014 after a Canadian soldier was shot at the Canadian War Memorial and a shooter was seen running towards the nearby parliament buildings. The Government Operations Centre was criticized about its handling of the incident. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

One media report revealed the operations centre did not have computer technicians on site, food was limited and senior emergency officials weren't in the building.

CBC News also reported the operations centre issued a Canada-wide alert more than five hours after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block, warning that up to five other assailants were involved in the attack.

The erroneous report to top officials claimed to be drawing on news media and other open sources for the information.

The GOC was created in 2004 as part of a revamp of the government's security response regime.

Floods, earthquakes, industrial disasters

Under the Emergency Management Act, the minister of public safety takes the lead for emergency management — developing contingency plans for floods, earthquakes and industrial disasters, as well as co-ordinating various departments and providing personnel, goods and transportation for regions affected by an emergency.

Documents obtained by the CBC's Dean Beeby earlier this year through Access to Information reveal a full cost estimate for constructing a new facility was completed in 2005 by Public Works and Government Services Canada, and updated again in 2009.

Information about which options the department evaluated were redacted.

The documents said the GOC serves as the "all-hazards national warning point" for the Government of Canada and led the response to the 2015 Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games, the 2015 fires in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, the 2014 Ottawa shooting and the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak.

One undated document, stamped "Secret, Advice to the Minister," issues a warning about the current facility's ability to do the job.

'Major corporate risk'

"Over the past four years, the Government Operations Centre's facility has been identified as a "major corporate risk for Public Safety and poses a risk to the centre's ability to deliver on its mandate," it reads.

Management agreed with the latest audit's findings, and laid out an action plan to improve operational performance, setting target dates for completion in 2017 and 2018. It is not clear if there is a specific plan to relocate.

Public Safety Canada spokesman Kevin Miller said the government is working to improve operations, but did not provide details.

"While we cannot get into specifics, I can tell you that the Government of Canada continues to invest in the Government Operations Centre by providing necessary funding for new accommodations and initiatives that enhance the national capacity to prevent, prepare for, mitigate, respond to and recover from events that impact the national interest," Miller said in an email response to questions from CBC News.

"A number of measures are in place to mitigate risks. However, ‎in order to ensure operational safety and security of GOC staff, we do not disclose the location or staffing details of the GOC."