Canada·In Depth

Disaster relief: Canada's rapid response team

DART - the military's Disaster Assistance Response Team - was set up to deliver emergency aid to disaster areas quickly. Missions last no longer than 40 days and are designed to provide immediate relief until long-term aid can be sent in.
Seen aboard a CC-130 Hercules en route to Haiti in Jan. 2010, similar military equipment and medical supplies could be used for Canada's DART team to respond immediately to the earthquake disaster in Japan. ((Cpl. Tina Gillies/DND) )
The Disaster Assistance Response Team — made up of about 200 Canadian Forces personnel — is designed to quickly fly into disaster areas around the world. The primary goal is to provide emergency services, such as drinking water and medical treatment , until long-term aid arrives.

DART will only go into areas where it would not face military resistance. Missions last no longer than 40 days.

The Canadian Forces created DART in 1996 because of its experience in Rwanda two years earlier, when international relief organizations arrived too late to save thousands of people from a cholera epidemic.

That convinced the federal government it needed to be able to respond more quickly. Since then, DART has helped disaster victims in Turkey, Honduras, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Haiti.

What does DART do?

Cpl. Lucy Rouleau, left, and Cpl. Monique Bartlett, hold Monique Lucy Marie on Jan. 28, 2010 after delivering her at the Canadian DART medical clinic in Jacmel, Haiti. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
DART consists of about 200 Canadian Forces staff who can ship out quickly to conduct emergency relief operations for up to 40 days.

The team has four main goals: 

  • Provide basic medical care: Its tented medical aid station can serve up to 250 outpatients and 10 inpatients a day. The medical platoon treats minor injuries and tries to keep diseases from spreading, but doesn't perform surgeries. The aid station includes a lab, a pharmacy, limited obstetrics services and rehydration and preventative medicine section.
  • Produce safe drinking water: Water purification staff can produce up to 50,000 litres of potable water a day, as well as chlorinating local wells and monitoring water supplies.
  • Repair basic infrastructure: Engineers can fix roads and bridges, repair electrical and water supply systems and build refugee camps.
  • Make communication easier: DART sets up facilities to make communication easier between everyone involved in the relief effort, including the afflicted country, non-governmental organizations and UN aid agencies.

DART does not go into places where it will face organized resistance and tries not to step on the toes of aid agencies.

The team receives less money than any other unit in the Canadian Forces, with an annual budget of $500,000.

What troops are in DART?

Apart from a handful of staff at DART headquarters in Kingston, Ont., the team uses personnel from military units across the country.

The team consists of: 

  • Engineer platoon: About 37 field and construction engineers.
  • Medical platoon: About 40 staff who operate the aid station.
  • Defence and security platoon: About 45 personnel who guard camp and support DART operations.
  • Logistics platoon: About 20 staff who provide maintenance, transportation and supplies.
  • Headquarters: About 45 personnel who oversee operations and co-ordinate DART's response with other countries and aid organizations.

How does it get sent out?

The Canadian government makes the decision to send DART after it receives a request from an individual country or the United Nations.

A reconnaissance team of about 12 people — drawn from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency, National Defence Headquarters and DART — heads out first to find what's needed.

Once DART knows where to set up camp, it begins shipping troops and equipment, usually from Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario. Almost everything DART needs — more than 40 vehicles and 340 tonnes of supplies — is stored in a warehouse at the base, ready to be shipped at 48 hours notice. Another 11 tonnes of medical supplies are stashed nearby.

What has it done in the past?

Canada has deployed the full DART team several times: in Honduras, after a major hurricane struck, in Turkey, after an earthquake devastated part of the country and in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Honduras: Operation Central

A severe hurricane that ripped through Honduras in October 1998 killed thousands and left several million people homeless. DART deployed to the most devastated area, the Rio Aguan Valley in north-central Honduras.

Because many of the roads and bridges were destroyed, four CH-146 Griffon helicopters from CFB Petawawa flew down to shuttle medical teams, food and water out to isolated villages.

DART staff: 

  • Treated about 7,500 patients, largely for ailments such as respiratory infections, skin and intestinal infections, diarrhoea and parasites.
  • Produced thousands of litres of clean drinking water and chlorinated local wells used by about 15,000 people.
  • Repaired roads, bridges and electrical and water supply systems.
  • Delivered more than 113 tonnes of food, water and medical supplies by the time they left in mid-December.

Turkey: Operation Torrent

An earthquake that struck northwestern Turkey in August 1999 killed tens of thousands of people and left more than half a million homeless. The DART team, which set up in the town of Serdivan about 135 kilometres east of Istanbul: 

  • Treated more than 5,000 patients.
  • Produced more than 2½ million litres of purified water, tested 50 water sources for safety and monitored a water treatment plant and reservoirs.
  • Helped clean up a local school.
  • Restored electricity at a medical clinic.
  • Constructed a 2,500-person tented camp in Serdivan.

Sri Lanka: Operation Structure

An earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, triggered a series of tsunamis in Southeast Asia, killing an estimated 275,000 people. Prime Minster Paul Martin announced Jan. 2, 2005, that DART would be sent to Sri Lanka.

The Canadian government was criticized at the time for its decision to send DART to Sri Lanka rather than to a more severely affected area, such as Indonesia, and for its perceived slow response to the crisis.

DART, which set up in an old sugar factory in Ampara: 

  • Treated more than 7,620 patients.
  • Produced nearly 3.5 million litres of drinking water. 
  • Transported nearly 70,000 across a local river. 
  • Helped in repairing schools, clearing rubble and building temporary shelters.

Pakistan: Operation Plateau

A magnitude 7.6 earthquake with an epicentre about 95 kilometres northeast of Islamabad devastated parts of Pakistan on Oct. 8, 2005. The quake killed tens of thousands of people in Pakistan and left about 2.5 million homeless.

On Oct. 14, 2005, after a request from the government of Pakistan, Canada deployed DART, which distributed 500 tonnes of humanitarian aid supplies and purified and distributed 3,811,535 litres of drinking water.

The team also provided medical treatment to 11,782 people, including:

  • 7,000 who received care from mobile medical teams airlifted by helicopter to their isolated communities.
  • 2,637 who received care at the DART clinic in Gahri Dupatta.
  • 2,145 who were immunized against a variety of contagious diseases.

Haiti: Operation Hestia

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, with an epicentre about 25 kilometres north of the capital Port au Prince. The quake decimated the impoverished country, responsible for over 300,000 deaths and leaving about 1 million people without homes.

DART was deployed on Jan. 13, 2010 and set up their main relief efforts in Jacmel on Jan. 16, after the team determined they could make the greatest impact there. They distributed 224,760 litres of water and 124,300 meals.

The team also helped with the maintenance and security of UN displacement camps, cleared the roads and demolished unsafe buildings in Jacmel. In Feb. 2010, members of DART also helped with the repair and refortification of route 204, a key transportation artery connecting Jacmel with the town of Léogâne, working with Hatian contractors.