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Elliot Lake fire chief sets record straight

laura-kingAug. 22, 2013, Elliot Lake, Ont. – Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer said Thursday that it didn’t matter whether there was a Ministry of Labour order prohibiting emergency workers from entering the collapsed Algo Centre mall because engineers’ reports indicated the building was too dangerous to continue the search for victims.

August 22, 2013
By Laura King

Aug. 22, 2013, Elliot Lake, Ont. – Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer said Thursday that it didn’t matter whether there was a Ministry of Labour order prohibiting emergency workers from entering the collapsed Algo Centre mall because engineers’ reports indicated the building was too dangerous to continue the search for victims.

Lawyer Darrell Kloeze, who represents the province – including the Ministry of Labour (MOL) and the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal – had been quizzing the fire chief about timelines, emails, and the authenticity of a rumoured order.

“We are spending more time on the order issue than we did at the scene,” said Officer, who was nearing the end of a second day on the stand and seemed frustrated with the lengthy line of questioning.

“The result of the engineering [reviews] were saying that this building was going to come down, and to me that’s the key information that was transmitted to [HUSAR’s] Mr. [Bill] Neadles and then to me,” Officer said.

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“Does it matter,” asked Kloeze, “if there was an MOL order shutting the operation down because the information you’re getting . . . is that the structure is no longer safe to continue the rescue operation?

“That’s absolutely correct,” Officer replied.

Earlier Thursday, Officer had testified that the search for victims of the collapse (two women died) was stopped because responders believed there had been an order issued by the MOL that prohibited them from entering the building after the operation turned into a recovery from a rescue.

Officer said had he hadn’t seen an order, but had been told by Neadles that there was a verbal order, and the paperwork was on its way from Toronto; that’s the point at which Neadles announced publicly that the search and rescue operation had ended, despite the fact that Lucie Aylwin was still inside.

The ministry did issue an order to the mall owner that prohibited anyone from entering. Officer had testified Wednesday that the ministry does not have the authority to order rescue workers out of a building. However, if a rescue operation turns to a recovery, the MOL can do so.

“Was there confusion about whether someone from the Ministry of Labour had shut down the operation or whether they had the power?,” commission counsel Mark Wallace asked Officer earlier Thursday morning.

“Quite frankly, it was entirely confusing, because there was an email from the OFM that [the MOL was] shutting it down, and you had to pursue it from there.”

Before the cross examination Thursday, an emotional Officer said incidents such as the collapse of the Algo Centre can happen anywhere and that the event has profoundly affected some of his firefighters.

“Elliot Lake should be a chief officer's dream job,” he said.

“We're not on a major highway, we do not have railroads, we do not have industrial plants. Our biggest risk is forest fires . . . and if you think these emergencies can't happen in our backyard, they do, and we were unfortunate to have to experience it.”

Officer said he is worried about how the incident will affect his firefighters in the long term – most did not want to do a debrief after the incident because they didn’t want to relive it, Officer said earlier Thursday.

“We will eventually move forward,” Officer said. “It's been very difficult on the community, it has been very difficult on my firefighters. I have a very deep respect for what these people do . . . ”

Also Thursday, the fire chief – who has testified that he was the incident commander throughout the operation – gave a blunt account of his struggle to get accurate information out to reporters and townspeople.

Officer said he was prevented by members of his community control group – a board appointed under the community emergency response plan – and, in particular, OPP Insp. Percy Jollymore, from telling his rattled residents that there were just two people inside the Algo Centre, and that at least one of them had died.

"I wanted that information out," Officer said.

Indeed, Officer testified, his training provided by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal had taught him “that in extraordinary circumstances it’s often best to release more information than you normally would.”

At the time, Officer said, firefighters had not identified the body of Doloris Perizzolo, but they knew the deceased was an elderly female, and they knew there was another potential victim. Meantime, television networks were reporting that there were more than 30 people trapped in the rubble.

“I know how the media operate,” Officer said. “And [media coaches] use the term feed the beast; [the media] have deadlines and if they’re not getting [information] from the people in the know, they’re going to the people on the corner, and that’s what happened.”

Officer said he recognized that the OPP may have protocols for releasing information, but in extraordinary circumstances such as the mall collapse, he believed it was in the best interest of his community to let people know what was going on. 

“Misinforming the public could have an impact,” Wallace asked Officer.

“It wasn’t misinforming them,” Officer said. “It wasn’t releasing the information that I wanted released. That information just wasn’t released.

“I wasn’t happy with the result,” Officer said, referring to the fact that members of his community control group supported Jollymore’s preference that the information not be disseminated.

Asked why he didn’t force the issue, Officer said his priority was to move on and deal the incident.
“If the consensus is moving in that direction,” Officer said, “you don’t have time to sit there and debate it over and over. You keep a united front.”

Officer later said he sought – and received – support from HUSAR’s Neadles to release the fact that there were just two people in the structure and that one had died, but not everyone agreed.

On Sunday, June 24, at about 1 p.m. the City of Elliot Lake put out a press release that said there was “no confirmation of loss of life” and that the operation was “still a rescue”.

“I was concerned that it was going to create this bubble,” Officer said. “And it was going to get bigger and bigger and it did. The people were starving for facts and that goes back to what I said about extraordinary circumstances . . . the social media today – this went global within 10 minutes . . . How do you keep on top of that? That’s why I felt when we had opportunity we had to get information out . . . My earlier concern was 30 people trapped – there were not 30 people trapped.”

Later Sunday afternoon, officials confirmed at another press conference that there had been one fatality.