Oct. 21, 2015, Toronto - A year after Elliot Lake inquiry Commissioner Paul Belanger released his scathing assessment of emergency response in Ontario, the government has yet to make changes in key areas including incident management and urban search and rescue.
Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur said late last week in a press release and a letter to the commissioner posted on the government website that the province is working to implement several of Belanger's recommendations, but the documents provide little detail.
Community Safety spokesman Brent Ross responded to questions about the province's progress in an email Tuesday. He said that while the ministry is reviewing IMS, there is no timeline for a new system.
"The ministry established a working group that has reviewed all of the Elliot Lake recommendations related to incident-management system and options are being developed," Ross said.
"Work is ongoing with this review, which may take some time as we ensure that the new incident-management system will meet the needs of all involved."
Belanger heard 39 days of testimony from dozens of witnesses about the emergency response to the collapse of the Algo Centre on June 23, 2012; two women died when a faulty section of the rooftop parking area fell into the shopping mall. Belanger said the Elliot Lake Fire Department did its job well but other aspects of the emergency response – particularly communication among agencies – was flawed and urged the government to improve its emergency-response practices and policies.
In his 1,400-page report released Oct. 15, 2014, the commissioner called for mandatory incident command, "simplified, to increase acceptance and actual use of the system," after several witnesses explained the province's unwieldy, 134-page IMS doctrine and testified that there was confusion about the command structure in Elliot Lake.
The province had a year to respond to the recommendations and outlined changes to the building code along with projects under development in several areas including building inspections and best practices for public inquiries. However, most recommendations are still under review, including those that affect the province's fire departments and other first responders.
For example, the province says it is training Ministry of Labour (MOL) inspectors in major-incident policy and procedure and is working to ensure that first responders understand the role of MOL inspectors during a crisis – a direct response to Belanger's recommendation and that of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.
But Meilleur's statements did not say specifically how the government is working with first responders; the ministry email provided little insight but clarified that there is still no process in place.
"The ministry is working closely with the Ministry of Labour to better define the roles and responsibilities of the MOL at an emergency response scene," Ross said, "and is working to develop an external outreach strategy with first responders."
The OAFC had standing at the inquiry and some of its members were involved in the IMS review. It said Wednesday it is waiting for the government to complete its work and make further announcements.
Belanger also called for restored federal funding for heavy urban search and rescue (HUSAR) teams, and for medium search and rescue teams to be based in Thunder Bay and Ottawa; there's no timeline for that, either.
"The ministry is currently developing a proposal for an enhanced USAR response program for Ontario which includes work-around options for implementation," Ross said.
As Belanger recommended, the province ran an emergency management exercise in Windsor in February that included the Toronto HUSAR team and the OPP's search and rescue team, called UCRT. The two teams deployed to Elliot Lake but had not previously trained or worked together. It's not clear from Meilleur's correspondence how closely the two teams collaborated in Windsor – or if they did at all – or whether they will train together in the future, as Belanger encouraged. The ministry email was murky on that issue.
"This exercise addressed 24 recommendations of the Belanger report," Ross said.
"The exercise required all participants to work together to address the situation, just as would be required in a true emergency."
The government also said it is providing continued training for OPP officers in incident management that will include a set of common terms and ways of responding to "maximize co-ordination and effectiveness."
As Belanger heard during the inquiry, the OPP uses its own incident management system that does not jibe with the provincial doctrine used by everyone else.
Belanger called for myriad other changes or improvements including training for rigging operations, timely after-action reports, better on-site communication, more training on use of cranes in rescue operations, private space for families during emergencies, timely briefings for media, access to command-frequency radios, improved record keeping, better response capacity for structural collapse, and collaboration with Ontario Mine Rescue.
Meilleur said in her letter to Belanger that the government will update the commissioner within the next year.