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Comment: August 2012

The dust had barely settled in Elliot Lake, Ont., where two people died under horrible circumstances in a preventable tragedy, when the calls came for multiple investigations and a coroner’s inquest (see Flashpoint, page 38).

August 1, 2012
By Laura King


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The dust had barely settled in Elliot Lake, Ont., where two people died under horrible circumstances in a preventable tragedy, when the calls came for multiple investigations and a coroner’s inquest (see Flashpoint, page 38).

The circumstances that led to the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall, and the response to it, will be dissected through the public inquiry, the Ministry of Labour investigation and the inquest. Dozens of decision makers will be held accountable for their actions before and during the incident. Politicians will continue to demand answers to what is perceived by those outside the emergency service as a delayed response.

It has been well documented on our firefightingincanada.com and firehall.com websites, in blogs and in the opinion pages of leading newspapers that the federal portion of the funding for the HUSAR units was eliminated under the omnibus legislation to enact the 2012 budget.

Less well known is the fact that another disaster-response team, the Ottawa-based NOHERT – the National Office of Health Emergency Response Teams, which was formed after 9-11 and the SARS outbreak – also faces an uncertain future. In addition, Ottawa is closing the search-and-rescue co-ordination centres in St John’s and Quebec City, and the Kitsilano Coast Guard Rescue Station in British Columbia is being shuttered.

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Back in November 2007 I spent a raw, frigid day at a disaster exercise in Toronto. Four of Canada’s five HUSAR teams were on site at the old Constellation Hotel, along with Ontario’s Emergency Medical Assistance Team, or EMAT, and NOHERT.

As I wrote in the January 2008 issue of Canadian Firefighter, “the scene, reminiscent of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that claimed 168 lives, was a mishmash of debris and rubble, fire, dust and victims, meticulously crafted to resemble the real thing.”

I remember being overwhelmed – and impressed – by the scale of the response: the maze of fully equipped medical tents; the seemingly endless supply of food, water and tools; the accommodations for the responders; the beehive of a command centre; and the taxpayer dollars – two million of them – spent on the exercise.

Back then, it not only looked like there was a plan. There was a plan.

From where I sit, that no longer appears to be the case. Sure, the Public Safety Canada website is impressive with its myriad lists of response agencies and mission statements, but can the fire  service stand by and be grateful for a pittance in the form of a tax credit for volunteers while the stalwarts of the country’s search-and-rescue capability are hacked away at from within?

If you let the pillars of your most skilled, most valuable services crumble – however seldom they are called to action ­ – sooner or later they will collapse, and the loss will be measured in ways you can’t calculate.

Just ask the people in Elliot Lake.


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