By Laura King
March 24, 2016, Toronto – Advocacy is a tough game; it requires patience, persistence, data, evidence-based analysis, time, and political savvy.
Kudos, then, to those who have worked so long and so hard to persuade Ottawa to restore its share of funding for HUSAR teams, as the Liberal government did in Tuesday’s budget – $15.5 million over five years.
There are four HUSAR teams – Vancouver, Calgary, Manitoba and Toronto –although I’m hearing there’s talk of restoring the collapsed Halifax team and creating a new team in Quebec. Each team requires about $1.1 million to run annually, including equipment.
Which means that for the four HUSAR teams to function, provincial and municipal money will continue to be required to supplement the $400,000 to $600,000 per team, per year, that will be provided by Ottawa.
Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney, who has been instrumental in discussions with Public Safety Canada about HUSAR since the Conservative government announced the cut in 2012, says while the teams are pleased with and excited about the restored funding, Ottawa’s contribution is “a bargain given the expertise, readiness and commitment” of the highly trained team members. What’s more, McKearney says, all three levels of government need to participate in funding and policy to sustain the response capabilities.
McKearney has scheduled a conference call in early April with Public Safety Canada and the team leaders to discuss next steps and details, which are sparse.
Should a Halifax team be reinstated, and a Quebec team developed, the $15.5 million would be further stretched. Although it’s not clear even to those fire-service leaders who have been involved in discussions with Ottawa if new teams are indeed being considered, the budget certainly alludes to expansion.
“Budget 2016 provides $15.5 million over five years, starting in 2016-17, to restore funding to heavy urban search and rescue task forces in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Manitoba, as well as to work with provinces to expand this capacity in underserved regions,” the document says.
While the restored federal funding is certainly a win, the advocacy required to ensure a national HUSAR response strategy, continued and consistent training and equipment, and ongoing federal, provincial and municipal support is daunting.
As expected and as promised by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Tuesday’s budget also includes a compensation benefit for firefighters, police officers and paramedics who are permanently injured or die in the line of duty, although the initiative merited just a single sentence.
Even the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs neglected to mention the program in a press release this morning hailing the HUSAR funding and Ottawa’s $143 million for enhancements to rail safety and transportation of dangerous goods, and noting the development of a national action plan for PTSD.
The PTSD program, too, seems to be a bit of a mystery.
“We look forward to hearing the details of the government’s plans,” CAFC president Paul Boissonneault said of the national PTSD strategy.
I find it frustrating that Ottawa (and Ontario, which has just launched a PTSD prevention plan for employers) is focusing specifically on post-traumatic stress disorder given that experts tell us anxiety, depression and substance abuse comprise the bulk of mental illness – even among first responders. Fire-service leaders made this clear to Goodale during a roundtable in Regina late last year, so let’s hope it’s simply semantics at play.
Certainly all the first-responder initiatives in the budget are wins given the gargantuan efforts required to educate and convince politicians and bureaucrats of their value. The devil may be in the details.