Policy Brief - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Toward an Integrated North American Emergency Response System

| June 23, 2022

Executive Summary

Disasters and emergencies have never respected borders, and current climate and development trends are only generating greater challenges for emergency management across North America. Natural disasters are evolving: wildfires are growing in frequency and intensity, advancing across borders, destroying forests, homes, and croplands; hurricanes increase in strength and travel trajectory, reaching farther north and leaving greater destruction in their wake; lengthy droughts persist, which fuel greater fire danger and present an urgent water problem for municipalities and agriculture; and environmental migration is a growing reality. Simultaneously, population growth increases demand for housing, services, food, mobility, and more. Additionally, the next pandemic and human-made disasters, whether terrorist in origin or stemming from the cross-border movement of dangerous substances, must remain a planning and response priority.

The rapidly intensifying effects of climate change, the increased globalization and potential spread of infectious disease outbreaks, and the rise in both the threat and impact of disruption
to technology or infrastructure pose an expanded risk across North America. As the risk profile evolves, so does the need for improved coordination among the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Although the need for collaboration is clear, the distinct federal systems that operate in each country and their politics complicate intergovernmental collaboration, as do the different roles that national, regional, and private corporations can and should play across all of these separate jurisdictions. Each lever of power, governmental or private sector, provides a unique set of capabilities, yet none can address these urgent issues alone.

To meet these challenges, North America must progress beyond the historic approach to cross- border emergency management, which has consisted primarily of sharing information, to a more systemic and operational cooperation. Establishing a North American approach is a key component to more comprehensive and effective emergency management structured to meet current and emerging threats. This paper briefly examines the history of emergency response coordination among the United States, Mexico, and Canada, highlighting some of the major bilateral, regional and non-governmental agreements. It analyzes the challenges in emergency response and the resulting shortfalls of existing agreements, as well as considering lessons from COVID-19 pandemic. These historic and current deficiencies support the creation of a more robust tri-lateral agreement to deal with the pressing nature of evolving emergency response threats in the future. The paper concludes with recommendations on how to adapt the current emergency response systems to function as a North American Emergency Response Compact.

This paper is a condensed version of my longer report, Emergency Management in North America, which was published by the Wilson Center in February 2022. I express my sincere thanks to Brianne Berry for her assistance in preparing this version of my report.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette. “Toward an Integrated North American Emergency Response System.” Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 23, 2022.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem Headshot