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The man who plans for the unthinkable
Donna Jacobs, Citizen SpecialPublished: Monday, October 08, 2007
The man in charge of getting ready for emergencies and disasters in Canada's capital is a former Regina boy who worked as a lifeguard (age 14) and as a paramedic (age 19).
Now 39, John Ash is continuing a career that's driven by the intrigue, challenge and excitement of "making critical decisions that impact people's lives in a very positive way."
After working as a paramedic in York Region, Mr. Ash became operations co-ordinator for Ottawa's paramedic service in 2002. Two years later, at 36, he was named manager of the City of Ottawa's Office of Emergency Management (OEM).
His job is to think the unthinkable -- then plan for it.
Thus, he isn't hesitant to assess Ottawa's key terrorist targets -- though he adds that there are "no known current threats."
He lists the Parliament Buildings, the Department of National Defence, CSIS and embassies and high commissions. Besides killing and maiming large numbers of people, terrorists prefer either to hit symbolic targets or to cause massive disruptions that destroy public confidence. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon achieved both.
Mr. Ash and a staff of five work with CSIS, the RCMP, city police, fire and paramedic services as well as Gatineau emergency services, Ontario and Quebec provincial police and the federal Department of Public Safety. They oversee preparedness and co-ordination for emergencies and high-security events such as the Montebello meeting in August of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
The office also manages the 911 service and the public safety voice radio system -- the two-way radios that connect paramedics, police, fire, bylaw and public works staff.
While the terrorists plan for an aftermath of chaos, the OEM network plans for resiliency.
The arrest of 14 adults and four juveniles a year ago for allegedly planning to storm Parliament, behead Mr. Harper and take parliamentarians hostage (as well as to bomb the Toronto office of CSIS, the CN Tower and the Toronto Stock Exchange) clearly shows that Ottawa is on terrorists' hit lists.
Running through all terrorist scenarios, Mr. Ash says, is the anticipation that the RCMP would take the lead role in dealing with any threat to Parliament Hill.
If a dirty, or radioactive bomb were exploded downtown, contaminating a larger area, emergency services would create a safety perimeter and clear everyone from inside it. Portable decontamination centres would be set up. The Ottawa Fire Department has hazardous materials response vehicles that can be converted to decontamination units.
Mr. Ash says that the CSIS headquarters on Ogilvie Road is high-risk as a terrorist target, but it's rendered a low-probability target, given its setback from roads and its high level of security.
In the event of mass evacuation, either from a man-made or natural disaster, he says, "we'd request people to go to emergency reception in lodging centres such as high schools, parks and recreation facilities and we'd identify appropriate routes to take."
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