Canada needs a new civilian force to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies as such events become more common and severe, the head of the Canadian Red Cross said Tuesday.

In an interview CEO Conrad Sauvé compared Canada’s current approach to responding to emergencies to fighting a fire without any previous planning or preparation.

“We're trying to sort out who does what after the fire started,” he said.

Right now, Sauvé said, "we're not paying for the firehouse."

The result is that governments at all levels across Canada are relying more and more on both the Red Cross and the military whenever a disaster or other emergency strikes, which is putting a strain on both.

It is in that vein that Sauvé is advocating for more emergency readiness as well as the creation of a dedicated civilian force that is ready to act as the sheer volume and scale of emergencies hitting Canada continues to grow.

“We need to build that standby capacity,” he said. “That civilian capacity needs to be built up so we have a deployable capacity that’s not military.”

Governments at all levels have been increasingly turning to the Armed Forces for assistance after various disasters, most recently in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Atlantic Canada where more than 700 troops are currently deployed.

While the military is supposed to be the force of last resort, such domestic deployments have become a regular occurrence as the number of emergencies continues to increase alongside the scale of the devastation.

The situation has reached such a point that chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre has expressed concern that the strain is affecting the Armed Forces’ readiness to defend Canada from attack and conduct missions abroad.

Sauvé said the COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrated that the military is not always properly equipped to respond in certain emergencies. He specifically cited the deployment of troops to long-term care homes in 2020.

“It's a blunt instrument not necessarily made for this,” he added of disaster response. “And they have very specialized equipment. I was on a panel with a Canadian general who said they used an attack helicopter to transfer hoses … in the B.C. fires.”

The creation of a dedicated emergency response force wouldn’t mean the end of military assistance, Sauvé added, nor would it have to be run by the Red Cross. He also underscored the importance of building capacity and capabilities in local communities.

The point, he said, “is this is clearly in the civilian role. The military has another role and (needs) to be brought in as a last resort.”

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says the federal government is already taking action, with $150 million committed in May to the Red Cross and three other organizations to build up their ability to respond to humanitarian needs in Canada.

“We are committed to bolstering Canada’s humanitarian workforce and my mandate letter includes a commitment to strengthen Canada’s all hazards approach to emergency management,” Blair said in a written statement.

“The importance of these organizations cannot be overstated. Every day, around the clock, often at a moment’s notice, they bring relief and assistance to people who are experiencing the most challenging moments of their lives.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.