Edmonton

Critics slam budget decision to kill $122M provincial operations centre project

The Alberta government has pulled $122-million in funding for a new disaster response headquarters, despite two reports calling for a modern facility in the aftermath of the largest disasters in recent provincial history. 

'Albertans are being shortchanged by this government,' NDP opposition critic says

The Provincial Operations Centre, staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, is responsible for coordinating the response and support for natural or human-caused disasters. (CBC)

The Alberta government has pulled $122 million in funding for a new disaster response headquarters, despite two reports calling for a modern facility in the aftermath of massive provincial disasters.

The Provincial Operations Centre is the government's disaster response hub. During the most serious events, representatives from every government department descend on the building in northwest Edmonton to coordinate with first responders and community leaders on the ground.

Independent reports say the building —  believed to be 50 years old — is overcrowded, flood-prone and stretched beyond its capacity. Trailers had to be placed in the parking lot to accommodate overflow staff during the Fort McMurray wildfires, according to a 2017 audit.

A new facility was expected to be built in south Edmonton by 2021 after the NDP government earmarked $125 million for the project in its 2017 budget.

But it was cut after the UCP government pulled $122 million earmarked for the project in the recent Alberta budget

"Due to the current fiscal environment, our government has decided to continue using the existing Provincial Operations Centre to respond to emergencies, rather than build a new one," Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu, who oversees the operations centre, said in a statement to CBC News. 

"This will save Albertans approximately $122 million without impacting the quality emergency services they expect and deserve."

Opposition critic Joe Ceci called the decision mean-spirited. 

"The emergency personnel are being shortchanged by this government. Albertans are being shortchanged by this government," Ceci said.

Reports call for new centre after 2013 floods, 2016 wildfires

The 2013 floods exposed the limits of the current operations centre, according to a government-commissioned report by MNP LLP. The 2015 report identified a new operations centre as a "high priority." 

"The general working conditions are overcrowded, uncomfortable and contribute to the overall stress associated with emergency management," the report said.

As emergency personnel tried to coordinate flood relief for 100,000 people across the province, the operations centre itself flooded. 

The report says an industry partner, familiar with operations centres across Canada, called the Alberta facility "an embarrassment." 

"All noted that the facility is far too small and the layout is not conducive to efficient communication and collaboration," the report said. 

A 2003 CBC file photo taken during a media tour of the operations centre. When the building was renovated to house the operations centre in 2003, the facility was hailed as a world-leader in high-tech emergency response resources. Ten years later, it was called an embarrassment. (CBC Archives)

Some upgrades had been introduced by the time the 2016 Wood Buffalo wildfire sent the operations centre back into a top-priority, level 4 response. A 2017 KPMG report said better training and new software at the centre had contributed to a positive response to the devastating wildfires. 

Despite the upgrades, the 2017 review restated the need for a new facility. 

"Repurposing the current facility is not an adequate solution, as the current physical space is too small and past its useful life to accommodate the amount of space required," the report said. 

Trailers were set up in the parking lot because the centre couldn't accommodate all the staff in the building. The centre, stretched beyond capacity, created challenges related to planning and IT infrastructure, the report said. 

"With the size of the emergencies and the number of people we have to have in there in order to coordinate all of the supports, we've outgrown the current [operations centre]," said Shane Schreiber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, before a legislative committee in 2017

In his statement, Madu said he spent several nights in the operations centre responding to wildfires across the province this year.

"I am confident the existing facility is equipped to meet the needs of our emergency management staff and all Albertans," he said. 

'We have to do something' 

The decision to pull funding for a new centre comes as scientists warn climate change will intensify wildfires and floods in the province. 

Former Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson called the decision short-sighted. He says staff at the centre are doing exceptional work with sub-par facilities. 

"They deserve better and the citizens of Alberta deserve better." 

Firefighters battle the Chuckegg Creek wildfire near Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement in June 2019. (Rodney Schmidt)

Jamie Coutts, former Lesser Slave Lake fire chief, was on the front lines during the Fort McMurray and Chuckegg Creek wildfires. He also had the chance to see the operations centre in action while his team worked on flood relief in 2013. 

He recalled staff had little room to eat lunch or take breaks while they worked long shifts to oversee the response. 

"I'm a boots on the ground guy and when I'm out there, I want to feel like I'm supported by the government and I know the provincial operations centre is one of those areas that supports us," Coutts said. 

"I don't think we can keep operating with the same old building. We have to do something."

A spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda said the government does not yet have a total cost for the project. The consulting contracts in place can be terminated at any time with the government only paying for services rendered, the spokesperson said. 

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