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Canada’s HUSAR teams face challenges
Even before 9-11, the need for heavy urban search and rescue (HUSAR) teams was known in Canada. But the collapse of the World Trade Centre in New York raised awareness to a new level.

January 6, 2009 
By James Careless

Canada’s HUSAR teams face challenges

Even before 9-11, the need for heavy urban search and rescue (HUSAR) teams was known in Canada. But the collapse of the World Trade Centre in New York raised awareness to a new level. Suddenly, the possibility of digging through tons of collapsed concrete and steel was real for Canada’s first responders.

Photo courtesy Manitoba Can-TF4
Members of Manitoba’s Can-TF4 heavy urban search and rescue team participate in Operation Trillium Response in Thunder Bay in November.

To address this challenge, Public Safety Canada and other levels of government fund HUSAR training and response capability through the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP). Money is provided to support volunteer teams based in Vancouver, Calgary, the province of Manitoba, Toronto and Halifax. These teams are “called to disaster sites involving collapsed structures and trapped people anywhere in Canada as required,” says Jacinthe Perras, spokesperson for Public Safety Canada. “The teams have the capability to be ready for transport to emergency sites within six hours.”

HUSAR teams face many challenges meeting their mandates, not the least of which is money. “There is never enough money,” says Lance Stephenson, team leader of the Can-TF2 team based in Calgary. “Sustainability and knowing if the money will come every year is the biggest worry.”


Challenge 1: Finding and keeping the right people
All of Canada’s five HUSAR teams are made up of volunteers. This means the people on the teams come from other first-responder agencies, with their wages underwritten by those agencies.

“We feel that utilizing volunteers for the task force is good for the team,” says Stephenson. “We are able to attract highly qualified personnel from around the province who wouldn’t otherwise apply as they wouldn’t leave their current place of employment.

“Another advantage is it gives the team diversity. If an event was to happen in a specific geographical area, we know we can rely on members from outside that area to fill task-force positions.”

Task force members are highly skilled. “We have people from multiple disciplines in Manitoba’s Can-TF4 HUSAR team,” says Robert Pike, program supervisor of emergency services in the province’s Office of the Fire Commissioner.

Besides fire, police and EMS personnel, the team includes members from the Office of the Fire Commissioner, the RCMP and Manitoba hydro. It also has USAR dogs from the Winnipeg Police Service, who are trained to sniff out victims at incident scenes.

Manitoba’s 120-member team took three years to assemble. The recruitment process involved all agencies associated with Can-TF4. Pike says agencies maintain their commitment and numbers to the team through active recruitment. “Our retention has been quite good as we continually seek applicants that have the support of their agencies,” he says.

Canada’s HUSAR teams are big. Manitoba’s is the largest, while Toronto’s team (Can-TF3) has 117 members. Calgary’s team, Can-TF2, which is “in its infancy,” says Stephenson, has 70 members. The goal is for the Calgary team is to have 210 members in all, as it wants to be able to deploy 65 to 70 people at a time.

“Because we’re volunteer based, our aim is to be staffed three deep in each position,” Stephenson says.

Vancouver’s Can-TF1 team has 72 members but will that will increase to 100 in the spring, says team leader Brian Inglis, and Halifax’s Can-TF5 has 45.

It takes time to staff a HUSAR team, due to the care with which the teams vet their members.
“There are minimum requirements they must meet and we perform extensive background checks and check references,” says  Inglis. “Then there’s a panel interview.” The result: “We might take one in five on a good recruitment,” he says. “It takes time for the same reasons it takes time to hire an employee.”

Once people have joined up, keeping them is sometimes difficult. One reason: With the exception of occasional training exercises, Canada’s HUSAR teams don’t often get to use their skills because the kinds of incidents they are trained for generally don’t happen – a point of some contention among some in the fire service who wonder if the money devoted to disaster teams might better be used on conventional equipment that’s used every day.

“Retention is always a challenge,” says Inglis. “We have tried to mitigate this by involving volunteers in task force events as often as possible, involving their families and involving their employers. We also try to communicate regularly to maintain their interest. We would actually like more deployments, more regularly, as this would also help in retention.”

Manitoba, however, has found retention to be a non issue.

We have reached the point that finding people is not difficult,” says Pike. “It is the ongoing recurrent training and outfitting that we are focused on. Again, the support of the involved agencies secures our personnel.

“Our members are supported and recruited by their respective agencies and are located throughout Manitoba. This support means our members are dedicated to the CAN-TF should the need arise.

Challenge  2: Getting trained on – and maintaining – the equipment
Canada’s HUSAR teams are generally well equipped. They have dedicated caches of rescue supplies, everything from rope and shoring materials, listening devices and remote cameras to Bobcats, 4x4s and tractor trailers for moving their equipment. They also have complete suites of SAR tools, water purification systems, portable kitchens and MREs; washrooms, tents and the ability to construct wooden buildings as needed. Add hazmat gear and decontamination showers, interoperable radio systems and satellite uplink capability, and the HUSAR teams are ready to swing into action at a moment’s notice. It takes time and money to train people to use this equipment; no matter how proficient they are in their own departments. “Training has been a challenge only because of funding,” says Stephenson. “Most of the funding for training will be coming from the federal JEPP grant. In order to do all the training that is required we need additional funding from the province. This is being worked on.”

“JEPP is probably not the best funding stream for this, but it’s all there is,” Inglis says. “We could all use some more capital to complete the teams, but we are limited to the current budget.
In addition, it’s the ongoing maintenance that’s the killer. Not everybody has this problem: In Manitoba, the current budget is a 25 per cent to 75 per cent provincial/federal commitment “This allows us to bolster our capital infrastructure resources and provides a basic operational and maintenance allowance,” says Robert Pike.

“In the future, our capital asset requirements will see new and specialized equipment being added, a training cache of equipment designated, and a maintenance, repair and consumable budget being required.”

Making training happen “is always a challenge,” says Paul Shannon Can-TF5’s program co-ordinator in Halifax.

It’s not just that the volunteers have day jobs taking up their time – getting HUSAR teams into the field for education is a very expensive proposition. This is why provincial and national training events happen only once a year. When not able to hone their skills at national training events,  the teams work on classroom and other forms of training to gain new skills and keep them sharp.

 “We currently offer a variety of advanced skills to our team members,” says Pike. CAN TF-4 utilizes skilled trade workers, such as journeyman welders, electricians and nurses and provides them with NFPA 1006 Professional Qualifications for Rescue Technician in the areas of Structural Collapse, Confined Space, Rope, Trench, Surface Water.  “All of our training is conducted through the Manitoba Emergency Services College and is accredited by the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC),” continues Pike. Other competencies offered to members of CAN TF-4 include NFPA 472 Hazmat/CBRNE tech, Incident Command 300 and CMA accredited PCP/ACP.

Still, when training does take place, the result is impressive. A case in point: Manitoba’s Can-TF4 and Toronto’s Can-TF3 teams took part in a joint exercise in Thunder Bay in November. Known as Operation Trillium Response, the exercise was meant to see how well these teams could help Thunder Bay deal with a 1998-style ice storm. Among other problems, Trillium Response required the evacuation of 35 residents caught inside a collapsed building (due to ice load), plus various weather-cased car accidents. It also tested the ability of the teams to pack up their equipment and deploy quickly using DND-supplied aircraft.

 “We packed up equipment into a DND Hercules and left at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday. By Sunday at 1700 hours, the job was done and we came home. says Division Chief Doug Silver of Toronto Fire Services, who belongs to Can-TF3.

“We learned a lot from the exercise,” he adds. “It was extremely challenging working in cold conditions; trying to set up a shower system at -16 degrees. And we proved that Can-TF3 can be quickly deployed by military aircraft; wherever we are needed.”

Looking ahead
Canada’s HUSAR teams face a contradictory existence. On the one hand, they have to be highly capable and mobile, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, the situation for which they are trained rarely if ever occur in real life. It’s a case of the old military cliche – hurry up and wait – taken to the extreme.

For those who lead these teams, finding and retaining good people will always be a challenge, one made more difficult by the funding uncertainty. In this sense, Canada’s HUSAR teams are coping with personnel challenges familiar to every fire chief in Canada, no matter or large or small the department. What remains to be seen is how serious Ottawa’s commitment to HUSAR will be in future years, especially given the nature and frequency of tasks they respond to.  As well, unless other levels of government pitch in (some, like Toronto, already have), it is hard to know if funding will ever be adequate for the task. 

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