Developing a Community Public Safety Officer Program

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Village Public Safety Officers receive their graduation certificates at Yuut Elitnaurviat in Bethel on June 14, 2019. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK). See Anne Rose MacArthur, “Federal funds add 24 public safety officer positions to Y-K Delta,” KTOO, 7 October 2020.

Reflecting on how to address the challenge facing community SAR organizations, one Kitikmeot community responder explained that: “SAR cases are increasing. SAR is an essential service at the community-level; we need it for health and community safety. There are multiple community groups involved in SAR – it is tough to coordinate between all of them. We should have a paid coordinator in each community who is the full-time point of contact for all things SAR. This person could organize the searchers, train community members, ensure there is cooperation and coordination between the different groups, check equipment, and ensure that a community is always ready for SAR. This person could keep track of who has what training in the community. They could arrange the fundraising. This could be a full- or part-time job, but it should be paid work. I think it would be a great investment in our communities.”

Having a full-time SAR coordinator position in each community might be difficult sell from a funding perspective, particularly when some communities conduct only a few searches each year. Through the development of a Community Public Safety Officer (CPSO) program in Nunavut, however, communities could be provided personnel to act as SAR coordinators while carrying out other public safety and emergency management duties as well. A CPSO program would provide a platform through which to mobilize the existing strengths in a community, while providing the space for the development of new capabilities.

The Alaska Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program offers a possible model. In 1979, the state public safety department developed the program “to provide for development of a locally responsive public safety program reflecting traditional and emerging strategies” while increasing “local control and self-determination” (Hippler, 1982, 2). Almost immediately, it yielded positive outcomes in advancing marine safety, effective SAR operations, and fire prevention and emergency medical assistance. While the program has faced criticism related to its policing mandate, inadequate funding, and limited support, public safety officers continue to make important contributions to their families. On the SAR side, VPSOs work with SAR coordinators and team leaders to organize community efforts, including training opportunities and prevention activities, and coordinate with outside agencies during searches. They also serve as a point of contact for community members who wish to share their travel itineraries and schedules.

Kitikmeot SAR Project participants suggest that the duties of Community Public Safety Officers in Nunavut – which must be determined in consultation with Nunavummiut – could focus exclusively on SAR (prevention, preparedness, response, and after-action activities), marine safety, all-hazards emergency management, fire prevention, and, if required, emergency medical services. No one thought the program should take on a law enforcement component – officers would be busy enough with the tasks listed above.

Specifically, on the SAR side, CPSOs could lead their community’s whole-of-society preventative SAR program, organizing and leading community education and training events, supporting the schools in their efforts to offer land-based programming to foster survival skills, and working directly with people going out on the land to ensure their preparedness. The CPSO could ensure that each community organization has clear plans and protocols for what to do before, during, and after a search, identifying clearly-defined roles for each member (e.g. buying food, checking the weather, preparing a kamotik, getting information from the missing person’s family). The CPSO could also create and update SAR resource sheets that contain the contact information of SAR Committees, GSAR teams, Auxiliary members, and all relevant territorial and federal organizations, along with information on available SAR resources in a community and private industry assets. This resource sheet would list all of the skills, training, equipment, and competencies possessed by community responders and be distributed to territorial and federal agencies. With support from NEM and interested federal agencies, the CPSO could organize regular training, meetings, and exercises between community groups and other governmental agencies to facilitate cooperation and coordination. Through all SAR activities, the CPSO would be a central point of contact between the community and outside agencies, facilitating essential relationship-building. To ensure continuous readiness to conduct a search, the CPSO should also manage a sea container stocked with essential supplies and fuel. Finally, CPSOs could work with community-based SAR organizations to ensure they maintain their good standing with the Territory’s Registrar of Societies, organize fundraising activities, and assist with paperwork.

During SAR operations, the CPSO would work to secure tasking numbers, ensure distribution of fuel and essential supplies, and act as a liaison between the community, NEM, and the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. With advanced training, a CPSO would be able to organize and coordinate the search and manage the community command post. Working with the hamlet office, the CPSO could keep track of responder reimbursements and compensation for damaged vehicles.

The CPSO should also be responsible for the collection of best practices and lessons learned related to SAR both in the community and, in collaboration with regional colleagues, across Nunavut. During the Kitikmeot Roundtable on SAR, one participant explained that, “When we have taken the time to talk [collectively] about searches, and how they have gone, we’ve learned a lot.” Discussing challenges and solutions after a search can identify lessons to improve better practices. Accordingly, the CPSO should be trained to effectively analyze searches: Where did it occur? What challenges were encountered? Solutions? How can the system operate better? They should be provided with a small budget for after action activities, including sharing circles, led by elders, to allow for debriefing, sharing of observations by team members, and critical incident stress management. Modest funding also should also be provided to convene community meetings after each search to explain what happened, disseminate lessons learned, and undertake preventative SAR measures.

A Community Public Safety Officer program would alleviate some of the administrative and leadership functions that demand so much from volunteers. Critics will, no doubt, highlight the costs of such a government-funded program, but imagine the savings they would generate if they could prevent SAR cases requiring an aerial response from the South. A Nunavut CPSO program would be another novel and equitable solution to the unique challenges facing the region, improving community safety, and answering repeated Inuit calls for greater emergency response training and resources. It would be a great way to implement many of the safety commitments in the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, the disaster resilience component of the National Adaptation Strategy, and the new Inuit Nunangat Policy commitment to develop new approaches to fund and administer federal policies, programs, services, and initiatives that “support community and individual wellbeing throughout Inuit Nunangat.”

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