Windsor and Detroit exist in a collaborative environment underscored by a strong mutual partnership. The level of binational law enforcement and emergency response cooperation in this area is unique to both countries. Due to this core relationship, Canada – and more specifically the Windsor Essex Region – was invited to jointly participate in the 2011 Detroit River Readiness Exercise, which took place in August 2011.

Responsibility for protection of the maritime transportation system and maritime critical infrastructure has historically been shared between the RCMP, Transport Canada, Windsor Port Authority (WPA), Windsor Police, Windsor Fire and Rescue, Emergency Medical Services, Emergency Management Ontario, numerous other Canadian law enforcement and response agencies and the United States. It was thus natural that the planning and implementation of this exercise be shared.

The Area Maritime Security Committee in Sector Detroit is comprised of not only U.S. representatives, but also numerous Canadian agencies that participate in the many committees that are responsible for planning and execution of exercises. This provides Canadian agencies the opportunity to exercise their own emergency management plans, while also contributing in a mass exercise that allows for the sharing of best practices in response and management.

The Canadian planning portions of the exercise were led jointly by the Windsor Police Services and Windsor Port Authority. The two agencies designed and coordinated the activities of multiple Canadian agencies and worked closely within the designated scenario timetable to enable expected actions after the activation of the Master Scenario Events List events. Months of direct preparation and plenary sessions with combined Canadian and U.S. agencies led to the exercise implementation, enactment and outcome of the Detroit River Readiness Exercise.

On the day of the exercise, calls of an explosion on the Detroit Princess Riverboat came to the Port of Windsor 911 centre and resulted in the dispatch of the Windsor Police Marine Unit to investigate. The Windsor Police Marine Unit immediately notified dispatch of the effects of the explosion, and indicated that there appeared to be a critical need for mass casualty response. Windsor Fire and Rescue and Emergency Medical Services were dispatched to Railway Park along the Windsor shoreline of the Detroit River. These services set up a triage area on site along with Windsor Police Command Services. As it quickly became an international incident, Customs Border Services Agency personnel were requested to come to the triage site to assist in processing survivors or casualties, as some of them may not have had immigration status within Canada.

Once fully established, the triage site consisted of Windsor Police Services and Windsor Fire and Rescue Command, Emergency Medical Services, Windsor Port Authority, Customs Border Services Agency, as well as the Salvation Army and its amateur radio system. Additionally, the Emergency Operations Centre in the City of Windsor was activated to include personnel from all the services at  triage, Emergency Manage­ment Ontario, officials from the City of Windsor, as well as a liaison from the United States Coast Guard.

Communication between the multiple agencies was vital to ensure a timely exchange of intelligence, as well as casualty processing. The Windsor Police Command took over as the lead agency and all intelligence and update information was passed to the Incident Commander, who held briefing meetings with the various agency commanders every 15 minutes. Information was channeled through the U.S. Coast Guard liaison within the Emergency Operations Centre to ensure all were fully briefed as to the situation and activities.

The Detroit River is a fast moving river with varying currents, making it very dangerous to position live persons in the river to be rescued. To simulate a casualty, specially designed survival suits with identification tags indicating the nature of injury and citizenship were thrown into the river. As these casualties, or “gumbies,” were rescued by Canadian responders, they were assessed on the boats and then taken ashore to be processed within the triage. They were met on the shoreline by Windsor Police officers, CBSA and emergency medical officials. The gumbie represented a real person who waited on shore to step in as an actor in the event. These persons were processed according to nationality and injury. Uninjured survivors were immediately identified for questioning as part of the investigation into the cause of the explosion, and those who sustained injuries were taken to a medical unit for treatment. If a person was unable to demonstrate Canadian citizenship or residency, but deemed in need of care, an officer stayed with the person as a form of custody until such time as he or she could be cleared or admitted to Canada.

Concurrent with the activities enfolding on the waterfront, the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs Annual Conference was being held in Windsor. The police chiefs were able to witness the collaborative nature of a smooth rescue operation. It was a prime opportunity for them  to see how a critical international event could be managed, as well as to observe professionals from both countries in action.

All participating agencies gleaned invaluable information from this experience, but none was more evident than the mutual respect in this region between the United States and Canada. The exercise highlighted the cooperation between the two countries and created a successful model for other communities. It demonstrated that difficulties associated with issues such as cross-border agreements and interoperability could be overcome in order to ensure the safety and security of the shared maritime transportation systems and critical infrastructure.

Peter Berry is Harbourmaster at WPA.