Radio Silence

building3aOne of the best things about running for council was meeting so many extraordinary people along the way. A number have become friends, and one of these kindred spirits – I’ll call him Steve – invited me on a tour of the Justice Institute of BC recently.

The Justice Institute is an accredited, degree-granting institution offering classes to 32,000 first responders and public safety professionals annually. In addition to a state-of-the-art campus in New Westminster, they also offer courses in more than 160 communities across BC; graduate 150 well-trained police recruits and 250 paramedics every year; and offer Canada’s only Baccalaureate in Fire and Safety Studies.

The Peace Arch: "May These Gates Never Be Closed"
The Peace Arch: “May These Gates Never Be Closed”

In the course of organizing our visit, Steve and I discovered that we had a lot in common, including the fact we had almost met fourty years earlier at a pivotal event in the formation of the environmental movement – Don’t Make A Wave. Don’t Make A Wave was a massive 1969 demonstration in Peace Arch Park protesting an upcoming nuclear test in Alaska. Based on the success of that event, the organizing committee went on to found Greenpeace a year later.

After discovering that we had both been there, Steve dug up an old Ubyssey newspaper article about the demonstration. In one of those curious twists of fate, the Associate Editor at the time was the man on whose mayoral campaign we had just met – Peter Ladner.

How is it, you might well ask, that two ex-hippies found ourselves on a tour of the Justice Institute of BC, responsible for the professional training and certification of the Vancouver Police force and other first responders?

vancouver_police1The simple answer is that times have changed. Unlike the bad days of the 1970s, today’s Vancouver Police force is a well-educated, professional force well-supported and populated by the minority communities it once troubled.

In addition to great leaders like Chief Jim Chiu, a part of the success of that turnaround can be attributed to the Justice Institute of BC, which conducts state-of the-art training of first responders using the latest in hi-tech simulation technology and a physical campus designed to facilitate real-world drills and training.

They are also training police forces from more than a dozen countries, imparting Canadian values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Women and men are not segregated, for instance, regardless of home-country sensitivities.

Most important to me, this is where our first responders are trained – the extraordinary individuals that rush into burning buildings when everyone else is running out.

Tom and I were living in Manhattan on 9/11. Even though we lived uptown and out of any danger ourselves, those events nonetheless forever changed our relationship to first responders, especially after so many died so heroically trying to rescue those still trapped inside the burning towers.

manThe real tragedy is that many died needlessly, using outmoded radios too weak to receive the evacuation call before the North Tower collapsed.

Every small neighbourhood firehall in Manhattan lost firefighters that day – ours lost half their force. For weeks, people in our neighbourhood lined up around the block to speak to the firemen and drop off food, donations, clothing, anything at all for the families left behind. Our firehall on East 85th was covered, all three stories, with cards from schoolchildren who wrote to them, flowers piled up in huge stacks against the sides of the building. It was the same all over the city – Firehalls became shrines.

AADK001051If you spend five minutes inside the JIBC training centre, you learn very quickly that what matters most in an emergency is the ability to successfully coordinate available resources, manpower and information in real time. This is what makes their state-of-the-art situation centre so valuable. They are constantly putting emergency personnel through real-life drills and gaming out emergency scenarios with a constantly changing mix of personnel from different departments and disciplines.

We have an obligation to ensure that emergency responders have the necessary training and equipment they need to do their job without unnecessary risk to life and limb. And that includes radios that work inside cement stairwells and are interoperable between police and firefighters, so that personnel and resources can always be safely coordinated when necessary. We should lay out a five year plan now to get this done.