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Auditor General Sheila Fraser says she's not sure why the federal emergency plan hasn't yet been approved. ((CBC))

If a terrorist attack, massive flood or other major disaster strikes, the federal government is unprepared to lead a co-ordinated emergency response, Canada's auditor general has found.

That's largely because Public Safety Canada's federal emergency response plan has yet to be adopted and endorsed by the government and federal departments involved, according to a report released by Sheila Fraser Tuesday.

Auditor General's report

Read the full document. 

Consequently, the department doesn't have the authority to co-ordinate other federal departments, provinces and territories to prevent confusion during disasters, the report said.

"Until that [plan] is approved, it is very difficult for Public Safety Canada to fulfill the role it has been given," Fraser said at a news conference.

She believes the plan has been in the works since the department was established in late 2003 and has "no idea why" it hasn't been approved.

When asked how the findings related to the handling of the swine flu pandemic, Fraser said the audit was done prior to the latest outbreak. But she said the roles and responsibilities of Public Safety Canada would have been clearer if a federal emergency response plan were in place.

Meanwhile, the department itself "has not exercised the leadership necessary" to meet its responsibilities. In particular, the report said, it:

  • Hasn't yet figured out what critical national infrastructure, such as food, water, and energy supplies; health and financial services; and communication networks, need to be protected during such events.
  • Has been unable to help police, firefighters and other first responders gain the ability to communicate and work together by developing standards for compatible radios.
  • Has been slow to develop a strategy to deal with cyber attacks on computer and communications networks that control things such as the electrical grid, even though such threats are growing.

"These are issues that have been identified for at least five years or more," Fraser said Tuesday.

She suggested some of the problems, such as the radio compatibility issue, could have been fixed if the department provided some funding to groups like emergency responders.

Fraser's report noted that the emergency management branch of the department has left a third of its budget unspent in the past two years. That budget was $58.5 million in 2008-09. It also had a staff vacancy rate of nearly 40 per cent last year.

"In this context," the report said, "it is evident that Public Safety Canada has been unable to develop its capacity for emergency management."

Fraser's report looked at a number of other federal government areas, ranging from taxes to foreign aid to electronic health records. It found:

  • Taxpayers face uncertainty in paying their taxes and the government in collecting them due to a backlog of more than 400 technical changes to clarify the Income Tax Act, which hasn't been updated since 2001.
  • Canada's temporary foreign worker program has been open to abuse, as the government has not verified whether jobs offered by employers to such workers actually exist or whether employment conditions are being met. Fraser acknowledged some of the issues would be addressed by changes recently proposed by the government.
  • Canada Health Infoway, the non-profit organization founded in 2001 to help implement electronic health records nationally, has made progress in helping provinces and territories ensure they are creating electronic health records are compatible with one another. It also has good controls over executive pay, travel and hospitality.
  • National Defence needs new guidelines for urgent purchases such as military vehicles for the Afghanistan mission. None of four such purchases followed federal guidelines. However, National Defence said three other purchases met "operational needs." A fourth is now two years behind schedule and its cost has doubled.
  • The Canadian International Development Agency faces criticism for its "complex and lengthy" funding approval process and has failed to live up to its commitment to narrow its focus. It still works in 60 countries instead of its target of 20.