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September 4, 2013
By Laura King


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Sept. 5, 2013, Toronto – So, it turns out, the friction between the members of the OPP’s rescue team, known as UCRT, and the Toronto-based HUSAR team who were searching for victims of the Algo Centre mall collapse in Elliot Lake last summer wasn’t as bad those of us paying close attention had been led to believe.

Sept. 5, 2013, Toronto – So, it turns out, the friction between the members of the OPP’s rescue team, known as UCRT, and the Toronto-based HUSAR team who were searching for victims of the Algo Centre mall collapse in Elliot Lake last summer wasn’t as bad those of us paying close attention had been led to believe.

I know this because I listened to and then read much of Tuesday’s testimony from OPP Sgt. Jamie Gillespie, who was part of the UCRT team and worked tirelessly to help find victims Doloris Perizzolo and Lucie Aylwin. Gillespie gave good testimony – he was well spoken and certain in his answers.

But with all the talk in my circles about the vitriol in the OPP witness statements and the evidence that would come out about the two teams not getting along, Gillespie and others have been rather contrite.

First, Chief Supt. Robert Bruce said last week that essentially the OPP failed Gillespie by not having a more senior and experienced staff sergeant on scene to work with Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer, who was the incident commander, and ensure that there was consistent communication between the OPP and everyone else.

Gillespie was the senior officer available to respond to the call on June 23, 2012. Of the 23 UCRT members, five were on vacation, one was on parental leave, one was in Montreal, and one – the staff sergeant – did not respond to the page.

As I noted last week, Gillespie had his hands full with the operation; he needed to stay with his team, and therefore could not be in the command tent, which led to communication gaps.

Essentially, because there was no UCRT rep in the command tent, team members didn’t always know what was going on and became frustrated when they were given direction by HUSAR members, without knowing reasons behind the decisions. 

All OPP members who have testified have agreed that Officer was indeed the overall IC, with HUSAR’s Bill Neadles commanding the rescue sector – although it had been acknowledged that there was confusion among OPP members about who was in charge of the hot zone.

Now, it seems, everyone wants to play nice, or perhaps has been told to do so.

As I listened to Gillespie’s testimony Tuesday, I made notes three times – when I heard the words overstatement, frustration and deficiency.

Overstatements, Gillespie acknowledged, about the clashes between UCRT and HUSAR – which turned out to be brief, albeit somewhat heated discussions at the end of long shifts.

Frustration, over not having a full UCRT team available – including the staff sergeant who would have been the liaison with Chief Officer.

And deficiency. “The deficiency was ours,” Gillespie said, referring to the shortage of UCRT members on scene. “I did not have people to put full-time in [the command tent].”

Although it has been made clear by OPP members that they worked well with HUSAR members and Elliot Lake firefighters at the task level, the question that keeps coming to mind is why UCRT was called in given that it is sustainable for just 24 hours at a time, a full team could not be deployed, and there was no staff sergeant available.

Chief Supt. Bruce acknowledged last week that the protocols have since changed and that the team must be deployed with a staff sergeant, which is a bit late for Gillespie, who clearly did his best with the resources available to him.

“I have great confidence in all the members that I brought with me there,” Gillespie said Tuesday, “but a lot of them had only two or three years experience with the team.

“Having said that, they had been operationally very active and had responded to many incidents. So I felt confident, very confident in their abilities, but it was my responsibility to make sure they came home safe.”

“You had to stay with your members?” commission counsel Peter Doody asked.

“And so I stayed with my members, exactly,” Gillespie said.

“Did you want to provide your own input and perspective to Chief Officer?”

“Well,” Gillespie said. “I think it's always advantageous to have more ideas, but I trusted [HUSAR] Task Force 3. We worked with them before. They have incident command that I know that travels with them. They're competent people. I had no issue. The way I sort of foresaw it, because of our deficiencies in numbers and command available, that I – that we would essentially fall in as an extra resource under the direction of Task Force 3 is how I saw it at 8 o'clock in the morning . . . based on the idea that I could not provide 24-hour coverage into the incident command.”

Doody repeated the question: “Right. But you'd been there . . . for about eight hours at this point. Did you want to provide your input and perspective to Chief Officer?”

“I think, from an information-flow perspective, it would have been much better. The deficiency was ours. I did not have people to put full time in [the command tent].”

“I think that it's important,” Gillespie said, “because it's one of those things that I would have liked to have, and we certainly could have made our perspectives known. But I don't think it critically affected the way things went on.

“I think it would have been – from a UCRT perspective, we would have had better
information flow . . . ”

Doody pointed Gillespie to his notes about a discussion with HUSAR’s Mike McCallion.

“And if you turn to the second page of it, you can see at the top paragraph, the third-last line you've written: ’Extensive command and control issues were encountered throughout the operation with CAN TF-3 leadership.’ "

“Have you told us about all of those command and control issues?”

“Yes,” Gillespie said. “Again, I wrote this report fairly shortly after the event and clearly the issues are limited to what we have spoken to, so that's an overstatement, again.”

At which point inquiry commissioner Paul Belanger interjected.

“You say you were extensively hampered in your efforts by the TF-3 commanders?”

“Which would be an overstatement,” Gillespie said. “In a large part.”

“It is one heck of an overstatement,” Belanger said.

“It is.”

“In an official document,” Belanger noted.

“I think I was just overly frustrated with not having the proper support there,” Gillespie said. “From our own organization as well as the issues that we spoke about earlier.

“So when I say it's an overstatement, it is, it is exactly that. You become far too emotionally involved in these things and the frustration is carried . . . for not just the day of the event. It's a regret on my part that I wrote in that fashion but it is what it is. I've written it that way and I have to account for that.”

“And that's the way you felt at the time?” commission counsel asked.

Gillespie replied: “That's the way I felt at the time.”

HUSAR’s Tony Comella is on the stand today; Bill Neadles testifies next week.


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