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June 27, 2012, Toronto - Are the lives of firefighters and rescuers worth less than the potential lives of people trapped under thousands of tons of unstable concrete and rubble? Or vice versa?

Who decides, and at what cost?

June 27, 2012 
By Laura King

June 27, 2012, Toronto – Are the lives of firefighters and rescuers worth less than the potential lives of people trapped under thousands of tons of unstable concrete and rubble? Or vice versa?

Who decides, and at what cost?

You all know the mantra: Risk a lot to save a lot. Risk a little to save a little. Risk nothing to save nothing.


The problem, it seems, is that everyone else – or at least the people of Elliot Lake, and the newspaper columnists and TV reporters covering the story of the collapsed Algo Centre – are ignorant to that concept; rather they’re convinced that Toronto’s HUSAR team members should be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and, further, they say, that’s what these guys signed up for when they chose to become firefighters, police officers, paramedics and HUSAR team members.

(Never mind that hardly anyone outside the emergency-response world had heard of HUSAR before Sunday, and only now is anyone paying attention to the fact that funding for Canada’s HUSAR teams is being cut – you can read more about that here in the mainstream media – even though we’ve been reporting on it since April! – and there’s more on this below).

What, I wonder, would those reporters and columnists say today had a few dozen HUSAR team members in Elliot Lake continued the search on Sunday in what engineers deemed a horrifically unstable working environment, and had the Algo Centre’s infrastructure come crashing down on top of them? How about these headlines? Rescuers make ultimate sacrifice. Or, Rescuers too stupid/proud/stubborn to stay out of unstable building. Or, Dozens of rescuers die in Canada’s own 9-11. Harsh, I know.

The situation in Elliot Lake is horribly frustrating, unfair, and sad. Of course the HUSAR members want to go in and do their jobs. And as twisted as they might be – is there a firefighter who isn’t a bit twisted, who doesn’t thrive on danger and adrenaline, and who really buys into the it’s-a-good-day-when-the-trucks-don’t-roll philosophy? I think not – they still want to go home to their families and a cold beer at the end of the day.

As Sean Tracey, in his capacity as chair of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness told reporters yesterday (ironically, Sean was at the World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto), “You do not risk lives unless you can save lives. And in this case . . . it’s just so extremely unsafe for those responders that them attempting to try and do this rescue would probably jeopardize even those that they were trying to rescue.

“So it was the right decision at the right time.”

Infrastructure expert Wayne Boone was more pointed in an interview with CBC News.

“The decision to go back and use those resources again was no longer an operational decision,” he said. “The decision to go back again, my point would be it was a political decision, for other than purely emergency-management reasons.”

No kidding.

As blogger Peter Sells noted yesterday, we’ve been writing here for months about accountability, responsibility and liability (Meaford, Listowel, Orillia/Muskoka Heights, Point Edward) and what some would call an overly cautious approach to fire fighting that forces chiefs and incident commanders to consider lawsuits before lives.

For the record, a Ministry of Labour spokesman (it’s the Ministry of Labour that laid charges in the Meaford and Point Edward cases) told me this morning that the MOL issued no orders on Saturday when the search was stopped and is on site in Elliot Lake in an advisory capacity until its investigators can look into the how and why of the collapse.

So, it seems that although Ministry of Labour engineers determined that the building was so unstable it could collapse at an time and was unsafe for workers, someone else made the call.

Does it matter?

Back to funding – or lack thereof – for the HUSAR teams.

The other journalist in my house works for The Canadian Press, the national news agency, and is as interested in the Elliot Lake story and the coverage of it as I am.

He happened to catch The National anchor Wendy Mesley last evening interviewing Alexander Ferworn, who teaches urban search and rescue at Ryerson, and chuckled when Mesley was surprised after Ferworn quipped that if people think the response to Elliot Lake was slow, imagine no response after the HUSAR teams are eliminated in January.

I watched the interview online this morning – clearly Mesley, like most Canadians – had no clue that the omnibus budget bill, which is about to be approved by the Conservative majority in the senate, will eliminate funding for the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program and the HUSAR teams.

When I spoke to Sean Tracey by e-mail yesterday he was in the midst of a handful of media interviews about Elliot Lake and noted that reporters were missing the point and focusing on the decision to stop the search on Sunday rather than the elimination of the HUSAR teams.

As Ferworn said, and as I mentioned yesterday, if a snow-covered shopping mall roof in northern Ontario or Manitoba or Alberta collapses in February there will be no HUSAR response.

Then who’s to blame?

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