War Training Readies Military Engineers For Peacetime Call

Readiness to fight wars provides military engineers with skills needed in peacetime civilian emergencies, such as the ice storm that hit Ontario and Quebec in January, says the commander of the Edmonton-based 1 Combat Engineer Regiment (1 CER).

At a joint luncheon meeting of the Edmonton APEGGA District and the Canadian Society for Engineering Management on March 17, Lt.-Col. Paul Wynnuk outlined the role his and other military units played in hard-hit areas of Central Canada earlier this year.

It was Friday afternoon Jan. 9, just shortly after many 1 CER soldiers had returned to Garrison Edmonton following their Christmas break, that word came for the military to assist civilian authorities in the wake of the ice storms that left vast portions of Quebec and Ontario without electricity. With two hour's notice, Lt.-Col. Wynnuk and another senior officer were on a plane headed for Montreal to assess the situation and to determine how Alberta-based troops might assist. Later that night, they were joined by an advance party of 12 officers. Two days later, on the Sunday, all personnel flew east and railcars with specialized equipment were loaded in Edmonton and were rolling eastward.

According to Lt.-Col. Wynnuk, it meant that within 72 hours, not only my regiment but the entire brigade, which is essentially a third of the Canadian army stationed in the Edmonton area, were in Montreal. It was quite an undertaking, considering there was no notice.

Once in the Montreal area, 1 CER troops were based at St. Jean Richelieu and found themselves deployed in the hardest hit area, a region stretching from the Ontario-Quebec border to Grandby, on the South Shore.

In a setting where 30 and 40-ton transmission towers lay like flattened fence posts, the troops were called upon to perform three major types of tasks:

u life saving;

u restoration of electrical power; and

u other duties to restore stability.

The military engineers helped distributor generators but also had to help ensure they were used safely.

In addition, Lt.-Col. Wynnuk told the APEGGA-CSEM meeting, By getting there very quickly, we prevented a lot of looting. There is no doubt that there had not been a military presence there, the police could not have handled it. The lifesaving role also extended to setting up kitchens to feed civilians, and supplying potable water.

Our greatest contribution was assisting Hydro Quebec crews, said the 1 CER commander.

Specifically, the military provided manpower to allow the hydro crews to focus their specialized skills on power restoration. 1 CER soldiers also found themselves building access roads and salvaging much-needed electrical components.

Redeployment to base units, including Edmonton, occurred between Jan. 22 and 27, some two and half weeks after going to Quebec. By the end of operation, members of 1 CER found they had been part of the largest domestic deployment of troops in Canadian history. More than 16,000 soldiers were brought in. This compares to the 15,000 troops who assisted with the 1976 Montreal Olympics; the 11,000 at the 1996 Saquenay flood, and the 8,600 who came to the rescue during the 1997 Manitoba flood.

The 1 CER commander noted that while his troops stand ready to aid in disaster relief, their training is geared toward five major war-related objectives, namely:

u ensuring mobility of other units in a battle setting, through the use of bridge-laying equipment and other machinery, and where necessary, clearing minefields;

u counter-mobility to hamper an enemy, including bridge demolition and laying minefields;

u survivability creating earthworks and bunkers;

u general engineering support including securing water supply against nuclear, chemical and biological contamination; and

u geomatics support (the newest area of support) providing trained analysis to commanders on how best to use the ground.

If the periods 1 CER spent in Manitoba and Quebec are added up, Lt.-Col. Wynnuk noted, one-sixth of the regiment's time during the past year has been spent in disaster relief.

"I believe that the regiment did very well. And there is no doubt in my mind that the reason they did well is because of our war-fighting training. There is nothing more difficult or complex than war and if you train for that and master that level of complexity at anything less than that, you will perform well."