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Disposable rescuers?

Editor’s note: Like many emergency personnel, former CAN-TF3 member Shawn Sweeney was frustrated by the coverage of the rescue effort in Elliot Lake, Ont., after the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in June. Sweeney, the deputy chief in New Tecumseth, Ont., shares his thoughts on the commentary and provides some insight into HUSAR operations.

Most Canadians watching the tragedy unfold at Elliot Lake’s Algo Centre Mall were not aware of the technical aspects and specialized processes needed to ensure safety following a structural collapse. Photo by The Canadian Press
It’s an understatement to say that some of the commentary about the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont. – particularly that relating to specialized resources and operations, technical rescue and its processes and systems, and, to a degree, the individuals involved in the rescue/recovery operation – was, at times, off base.

From my perspective as a former member of Toronto’s CAN-TF3 Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) team, the coverage and commentary – on national TV and by national and local newspaper columnists – was so far off it made me want to close the newspapers and turn off the TV and the Internet.

I have been, and always will be, a huge supporter of technical-rescue disciplines and the specialized personnel, equipment and training that go along with them. I know I’m preaching to the converted but I felt it necessary to outline and explain some of the background to this type of response and, in doing so, support a group of rescuers who deserve to be supported.

To my mind, the members of Toronto’s HUSAR team who spent five days in Elliot Lake after the roof of the Algo Centre Mall fell in and trapped – and ultimately killed – two women, deserve better than the thankless, uneducated criticism of grieving townspeople, uninformed journalists and self-serving politics that they suffered.

Some observers and pundits seem to have decided, based on the aforementioned columns and TV reports, that the dangerous and specialized work undertaken by HUSAR members deserves to be thankless. Indeed, this was some of the sentiment relayed to me by a friend and active CAN-TF3 member in a conversation following his return home from Elliot Lake.

My emergency-management experiences tell me different. What casual observers don’t know is that in a collapse situation such as Elliot Lake, a call to the HUSAR team is a call for help from a specialized resource, but not necessarily a call for rescue or recovery; until team members assess the situation, there is no assumption of the kind of operation the team will perform. The operation is determined by findings from size-up, various surveys, and available and ongoing information. Indeed, search-and-rescue equipment has been known to produce false positives – indicating life where there has been none. In addition, search-and-rescue environments can be untenable and unsafe for rescue until hazard mitigation is undertaken.

Newspaper columnists and critics seemingly want first responders to question ourselves, our mandates and our work; the barrage of criticism that followed the call to stop the Elliot Lake search because the building was so unstable it could have further collapsed without warning, seems to have divided us on the question of what some have labelled disposable rescuers – an ugly term. Do we sacrifice the lives of rescuers when we know it’s unsafe to go in? No, we don’t. Everyone goes home.

Have those who advocated going in at any cost forgotten NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and its principles?

  1. Activities that present a significant risk to the safety of members shall be limited to situations where there is a potential to save endangered lives. (Risk a lot to save a lot.)
  2. Activities that are routinely employed to protect property shall be recognized as inherent risks to the safety of members, and actions shall be taken to reduce or avoid these risks. (Risk a little to save a little.)
  3. No risk to the safety of members shall be acceptable when there is no possibility to save lives or property. (Risk nothing to save nothing.)
  4. In situations where the risk to fire department members is excessive, activities shall be limited to defensive operations.
We may all have our own interpretations, wording and standard operating guidelines but we share much common ground from department to department. We can also learn and improve together as a group of responders, and a service.

While much of the media coverage and commentary on Elliot Lake got me to reflect and wonder about changes to a number of things, such as crisis reaction and emergency communication, human nature and behaviour, and media nature and behaviour, our services have already incorporated a lot of changes and best practices; we just have to help others understand why and how our policies work.

Let’s remember the fire-and-rescue service mission, to save lives and protect property while balancing risk. Your department’s mission may be worded differently but the intent and execution the same.

So, some thoughts: 
  • To those who have posted otherwise in the media, rescuers are not disposable. Remember, the rescue complex kills.
  • Indeed, one HUSAR resource, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans field operations guide (FOG), clearly states that safety of team members is paramount: The emergency response team (ERT) members shall place their own safety and that of their team as the first priority.
Technical rescues and structural collapse rescues are not unplanned and unco-ordinated processes. For those who haven’t had an opportunity to work in these specialized disciplines, here is some detail from IFSTA’s Technical Rescue for Structural Collapse manual with some observations (in parentheses).

Planning and scene assessments
Basic pre-plan:
  1. Response area survey (I would recommend a check/review/revise of your local emergency response plan, or ERP; make sure all risks are considered)
  2. Plan development (Check/review/revise your local ERP; ensure all risks are considered)
  3. Resource identification (All risks; are there ERP finances and emergency spending limits? Is there enough funding?)
  4. Locally available resources (Are you ready for a structural collapse? Does your department or do nearby departments have a level of response capability for a light- or medium-class collapse?
  5. General support resources (for structural collapse. What do you have?)

What about an overall plan?
Developing the Incident Action Plan (IAP)
Phase I – Assessment and command of the collapse area:
  • Information gathering
  • Reconnaissance
  • Building triage
  • Large-scale search priorities
Phase II – Removal of all surface victims as quickly and safely as possible
Phase III – Searching all voids and accessible spaces for viable victims
Phase IV – Selected debris removal
Phase V – General debris removal

some safety considerations for a search plan?
Conducting a search:
Structural hazards evaluation:
  • The greatest area of concern for rescuers is not with fully collapsed structures, but with those that have partially collapsed. It is strongly suggested that structures specialists or structural engineers be contacted during this phase, both for safety reasons and to quickly receive additional opinions on all critical decisions. (Think about shoring plans and timing – which can take eight-hours or more per section of exposed sides of the opening (4), and then multiply that by the number of floors.
  • Logistics: You can’t use pressure-treated lumber for shores so you need to find an available source of shoring material. Is the structure even shoreable? (Think about the Pentagon after 9-11 and the components of that structural collapse; the building design required custom or non-standard pipe shores because the complex structure of the building, which included non-standard ceiling height, and the complex structure meant that it took longer than normal to install the shoring.)
Victim search and access:
  • Be aware that heavy and multi-storey shoring may be the only safe procedure.
  • Note: Conventional shoring may be ineffective due to the weight of pieces involved. (Indeed, both the Algo Centre and the Pentagon were constructed of pre-cast concrete. To have searchers enter into a collapsed area for search and rescue, four sides would have to be shored over two storeys. In addition, the team would have to deal with any overhead slabs such as that on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that was bombed in 1995.
So what should structural-collapse rescue and its foundation look like for the fire service and other specialized agencies? Is the basis of this type of operation  formed by disposable rescuers?

Ideally, our rescue capabilities would span all agencies and rescue-service disciplines, including trained community volunteers, and be funded and supported by all levels of government. One thing I know for sure is that Insp. Bill Neadles, commander of the Toronto HUSAR team – or any of the other HUSAR teams and their members – can dig me out on any day or night.

Shawn Sweeney has served for the past five years as the full-time deputy chief of New Tecumseth Fire Rescue in Ontario. He is a technical-rescue instructor in rope, confined space, water rescue, and firefighter survival/RIT at the local, provincial and federal levels. He is an NFPA level III instructor and provincial trainer/facilitator and a member of the County response team’s (CBRN-hazmat) senior working group and training group. He was a firefighter, captain of special operations, and a HUSAR team co-ordinator during his 12 years with Toronto Fire Services and is in his 19th year of service. He is a second-generation volunteer firefighter.

August 1, 2012 
By Shawn Sweeney

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