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Elliot Lake aftermath

When Ottawa quietly announced in the spring that it would stop funding Canada’s five heavy urban search-and-rescue (HUSAR) teams in 2013

August 1, 2012 
By Laura King

When Ottawa quietly announced in the spring that it would stop funding Canada’s five heavy urban search-and-rescue (HUSAR) teams in 2013, fire-service leaders say there had been no consultation with emergency services or the fire chiefs in the cities where the teams are based, no analysis of the business case that led to the launch of the teams more than a decade ago, and no risk analysis to detail what the withdrawal of federal money would mean to emergency response in Canada – emergencies such as the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., on June 23.

Members of Toronto’s CAN-TF3 HUSAR team bow their heads as firefighters remove a body from the rubble of the collapsed Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake in June. Federal funding for the HUSAR teams was eliminated in the 2012 budget and Ottawa’s contribution to the five teams dries up in March. Photo by The Canadian Press


And that’s what angers those who are fighting to ensure that Canada maintains its ability to respond to incidents such as that in Elliot Lake; proponents of the HUSAR teams argue that Ottawa has made a political decision about an operational issue without considering the potential ramifications, and they’re working with Public Safety Canada –  not necessarily to reverse what they call a short-sighted decision, but to find an alternative response model that works.

Ironically, on June 26, the day before rescuers in Elliot Lake removed the first of two bodies from the rubble, representatives from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC), the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) and the Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada (EMSCC), met in Ottawa with Public Safety Canada to discuss what they call a transition plan to preserve the HUSAR teams.


“Right now the discussions are very preliminary,” CAFC president Rob Simonds said in an interview in early July. “We’re looking at some solutions that will possibly take an all-hazards approach to emergency response.”

Simonds said he couldn’t divulge details but made it clear that discussions were more focused on a modified response model rather than on restoring federal funding for the HUSAR teams.

“I know that in terms of the financial pressures that are facing the government, I am not overly optimistic that funding would be coming forward,” Simonds said.

Still, the fire, police and EMS chiefs have asked Public Safety Canada to look for any alternative funding that might be available to the teams.

“The CAFC, CACP and the EMS chiefs have challenged the government to go back and examine what options there are to secure funding to sustain these teams into the future,” he said.

Simonds says that when he initially approached Public Safety Canada after the funding cut was announced, and challenged the department to explain the logic behind the withdrawal of federal money and the future plan for emergency response, bureaucrats recognized that there should have been consultation with emergency-services leaders.

“I think certainly in hindsight they would acknowledge that the path forward could have been considered much more thoroughly,” he said.

Simonds said those advocating for the HUSAR teams are open to a new response model.

“If we look at our risk profile across the country it absolutely necessitates having teams that can be deployed and whether they’re light or medium or scout teams that can assess, there has to be some consideration given to those facts,” he said.

“As much as HUSAR has become the focal point [after Elliot Lake], we’re also looking at CBRNE and other issues so that there can be a seamless response to these types of incidents, that would have multiple levels of response and involve all three levels of government.”

Whatever the result of the discussions with Public Safety Canada, it will be tested at an exercise in October, Simonds said, “to examine how effective the emergency response and management would be with whatever the new response model would look like.”

The background
The funding model is simple. Ottawa provides $3 million a year for Canada’s urban search and rescue (USAR) and heavy urban search and rescue (HUSAR) teams through the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP). Funding for light urban search and rescue teams – there are several across Canada – is shared equally between Ottawa and the provinces. Ottawa provides one-third of the funding for the five HUSAR teams – in Vancouver, Calgary, the province of Manitoba, Toronto and Halifax – to pay for operations and maintenance. The rest of the funding comes from the provinces and the municipalities in which the teams are based. The HUSAR teams received $1.87 million in federal funding for 2012-2013 (the funding dries up at the end of March) and a total of $9.7 million since 2009.

HUSAR’s Bill Neadles has said wishes he had chosen his words differently when he told reporters that the search was ending for victims in Elliot Lake. Neadles said the team would have stayed in Elliot Lake for weeks to help the town.
Photo by The Canadian Press


Public Safety Canada’s rationale for the cut is that the objective of the JEPP program, which is to enhance local emergency preparedness and response capacity, has been met. That statement lacks logic, say those working to convince Ottawa to restore the HUSAR program.

If there was an earthquake, say, in Vancouver, the Vancouver team would not be able to respond and would count on the other teams,” says Sean Tracey, chair of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness. “What happens if there’s a major issue in Saskatchewan or Quebec? Or somewhere in Newfoundland and Labrador or New Brunswick? This was the whole concept of having national resources positioned in the provincial regions.

“It’s also a bit disingenuous,” Tracey told “This is a highly technical search-and-rescue capability. By a logical extension of the federal government’s argument here, is the national military search-and-rescue capability also now supposed to be a provincial responsibility? It’s not right. We know that we need this capability. We do provide federal military support for national search-and-rescue, aircraft support for search-and-rescue capabilities, and ground search and rescue teams. Why are we withdrawing funding for the heavy urban search and rescue teams on a program that was initiated by the federal government on a review of the landscape back in 2001 after 9-11?”

Although emergency response is a provincial responsibility, Tracey says, Ottawa recognized when it established the JEPP program and the HUSAR teams that there was a gap in response capabilities that required federal support.

Indeed, Public Safety Canada evaluated the HUSAR units five years ago and found that without federal funding, there was a risk that the teams would not be sustainable.

“There is a need for the federal government to continue contributions to build capacity and capability for teams focused on heavy urban search and rescue,” the report says.

“The HUSAR teams have a need for ongoing operating and maintenance funding to ensure sustainability. Without such funding there is a risk that some or all of the HUSAR teams will not survive.”

Essentially, Ottawa’s own analysis found that provincial and municipal governments did not have the financial resources to cover the federal portion of the funding for the HUSAR teams.

“Because they do not have adequate funds for ongoing operations and maintenance . . . the sustainability of their organizations is in jeopardy as is their ability to fulfill their missions in the long-term,” the report says.

“Their assertion is that continued development and future sustainability of HUSAR teams for co-ordinated national deployment is dependent upon contributions from the federal government. They want the federal government to provide funding to ensure the sustainability of the HUSAR teams.”

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ office sees it differently. The HUSAR funding cut made national news during the coverage of the response to Elliot Lake. In an email widely distributed to media, Toews’ office said that 90 per cent of emergencies in Canada are managed by municipalities or at the provincial or territorial level.

“Our government has supplemented provincial emergency preparedness by investing in equipment and training for urban search and rescue teams, firefighters, police and other first responders,” the email said.

“Moving forward, our government is focused on delivering long-term disaster prevention funding to help provincial and territorial governments build infrastructure to protect against natural disasters.”

In Ontario, Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur said the province can’t assume the federal portion of the funding for Toronto’s HUSAR team.

“[The] federal contribution was approximately 10 times provincial assistance and the unavailability of this funding will significantly impact the ability of Toronto to maintain provincial HUSAR capacity,” she said.

The argument
The decision on June 25 to halt the search in Elliot Lake’s Algo Centre because the risk of further collapse was too high drew criticism from uninformed pundits and grieving townspeople who reacted in anger.

Cameras from media outlets outside the Algo Centre in Elliot Lake, Ont., on June 28, a day after the recovery of two bodies from the collapsed structure. Emergency-services leaders are working with Ottawa to try to find funding to maintain Canada’s HUSAR teams, the only teams fully trained in heavy urban search and rescue. Photo by Nathan Denette, The Canadian Press


Then, TV reporters and newspaper columnists did some Google searches and pontificated that although the HUSAR teams train hard, they are seldom deployed and have little experience with large-scale collapses (the teams’ mandate specifies that they not be deployed outside of Canada). Did the Toronto HUSAR team need help in Elliot Lake from better-prepared American search-and-rescue teams, the reporters wondered?

Later, after Tracey and others told reporters about the funding cut – which was news to most Canadians outside of the emergency services even though it had been announced more than two months earlier – some wondered if the withdrawal of federal support mattered given that the team couldn’t do what observers thought it should have done in Elliot Lake: get the victims out quickly.

While experts such as Tracey and Bob Simpson from Calgary’s CAN-TF2 team did media interview after interview in an effort to correct misconceptions about the role of the HUSAR teams and explain the preparation and technical expertise necessary to enter a collapsed structure, others have been working the political and bureaucratic side.

As the CAFC’s Simonds explained, when the HUSAR teams were developed, Ottawa had prepared a business case that indicated where the teams should be located. He says that information must be considered now as part of the process to determine what happens next.

“From a risk-analysis perspective there had to be a reason to put teams in place in certain geographical areas of this country,” Simonds said.

“If that has changed, what does that new risk analysis look like? What kinds of teams do we have? In the absence of having that information or undertaking that analysis, that’s where many of the fire chiefs across Canada are coming from in terms of their positions on this.”

Simonds suggested that several smaller teams strategically located across the country – such as the heavy hazmat team in New Brunswick – in addition to scout teams from smaller jurisdictions, could do size-up and incident action plans before other types of teams arrive to do the heavy lifting, so to speak. But, he reiterated the need for federal, provincial and municipal participation.

Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney agrees.

“The only way you can manage a HUSAR problem is with co-operation and partnerships among the three levels of government,” he said.

“My annualized cost is $1.4 million, of which, year in and year out, the federal contributions have been between $400,000 and $500,000, so it’s really one-third of the equation, and then the taxpayers of  Vancouver and some tax base in the province has been picking up the balance. To believe that the City of Vancouver can continue [to cover] that full cost is not realistic.”

McKearney says that without federal funding the teams’ ability to maintain their equipment will unravel and the units will falter.

“It was only in last couple of years, since 2006 and 2007, that Public Safety Canada really finally stopped changing seats and put in good leadership and has put together what is truly now a national approach to heavy urban search and rescue,” he said.

“So my feeling is to pull out now, the five teams . . . will begin to recede  because there are so many other [funding] priorities in everyone’s day. Without this balance of money, the emotion will change and the wind will be out of the sail and emergency leaders will start to shift their services to different needs, and that’s detrimental to our citizens.”

Essentially, McKearney said, those working with Ottawa are aiming to convince bureaucrats that the teams are vital to public safety in Canada.

“It doesn’t have to be JEPP,” he says, “but there has to be a funding approach that says we want this to continue. Come the third quarter of this year, if there’s no change, we’re going to have to come up with strategy on how to change this – but in most provinces, the teams will likely recede to something that’s regional and provincial.

“I think everybody believes in a tri-party agreement that involves a number of good steps, a system that determines who goes where and when, good accountability. It’s a very complex approach but it’s got a low-frequency use and we’re looking at how to manage it.”

McKearney, like Simonds and Tracey, is frustrated with the critics who have questioned the benefit of funding for such specialized teams that are rarely called out.

“It’s an insurance piece,” he says. “You have to have a certain readiness. The fire service or heavy search and rescue is really a civilian army in times of crisis and their skill sets are specific to something that overwhelms.”

In Vancouver, where the threat of an earthquake looms, McKearney and others have been working constantly with provincial and municipal officials to establish an efficient and effective complete response system.

“We have been working with different emergency responders and different public servants who do certain jobs so that not everyone has to be trained on every job,” he says.

“The advantage is that these are people who work 24-7, and these are their skills anyway – police handle technical search and canine, the engineering branch handles structural integrity and logistics, and our provincial ambulance and their contracted doctors work as part of the medical team, so it’s compartmentalized.

“Before, we had everyone trying to do everyone else’s job. I think we’re about as efficient as we can be but it’s still a huge undertaking.”

McKearney says that collectively, the fire service has a lot to offer in an all-hazards approach.

“With heavy teams supplanted across the country, the CAFC and Public Safety Canada should then work closely to have some of the skill sets and tooling up of the fire service across the country to be medium capable or light capable, and that’s what we’re doing in our province. Medium-capable teams – which are generally fire services – can click into the heavy teams, so that they know each other, know procedures, and then you have a web of competent emergency responders who have the same skills although their mandates are a bit different.”

Retired Toronto Fire Services Chief Bill Stewart is also frustrated by the funding issue. Until the HUSAR secretariat was established three years ago, a committee working with Public Safety Canada was doing so “off the corner of a desk,” he says of the overall lack of federal support.

Stewart is convinced that without federal funding the Toronto HUSAR team will fold, because, he says, the City of Toronto will not pick up the funding slack.

Stewart and others – Sean Tracey in particular, along with the CAFC – advocates having a national fire co-ordinator in Ottawa to help bureaucrats and politicians understand the technical complexities of emergency response. Ottawa has said previously that it is not interested.

“National emergency response and public safety is a federal responsibility and I don’t know how you disconnect fire from public safety,” Stewart says. “If you had someone in Ottawa who could explain what the necessities and capabilities are then we may not be in this position today.”

Stewart has a retort for the critics who have questioned the need for the HUSAR teams.

“If you choose to do nothing, you have nothing,” he says. “Having a capability is your capability should something occur. If we sit and do nothing and aren’t prepared to handle it, what do we do then? We can’t begin to train the day the building comes down.”

Interestingly, Stewart says, on two or three occasions the federal government has used Toronto’s HUSAR building as the backdrop to announce details of emergency preparedness week.

“And Minister Toews stood there and extolled the virtues of the program. How did that change?” Stewart asks.

“It was a decision by bureaucrats. If it were run by the cops . . . we probably wouldn’t have lost it. That’s the reality.”

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