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Lessons learned from Elliot Lake

Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King interviewed Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer on Oct. 15, the day Commissioner Paul Belanger’s report on the inquiry into the collapse of Algo Centre mall – and the emergency response to the incident – was released.

Part II of the report, on the emergency response, contains 34 recommendations from a more manageable – but mandatory – incident management system, to interoperability, but also praises the Elliot Lake Fire Department’s response to the collapse on June 23, 2012, in which two women were killed.

Chief Officer and captains Darren Connors and John Thomas testified during the seven-month inquiry in 2013.

Responses from government departments and agencies to the commission’s recommendations are due by Oct. 15 this year.

Q Commissioner Paul Belanger’s report is favourable to the Elliot Lake Fire Department, and the commissioner had good things to say about the response. What is your take on the report?  

A I’m happy to see that our firefighters received the recognition that they deserve. There was a lot of effort put in on that day. They did risk their lives when they first went in and I’m happy to see that recognized.

Q One of the criticisms during the inquiry was the lack of a written incident action plan; the commissioner, however, says the department did everything right. Is that vindication?

A I think to a certain extent [it’s validation that we did things right]. Of course you can always learn from things. [Commissioner Belanger] did say in his report that although there was no written incident action plan he did feel that there was a plan formulated in the minds of the various commanders and myself, and I think that’s quite true.

Writing things down at the time . . . I had a scribe, but putting up a white board might have helped to clarify things so that if somebody comes on – I won’t say for a shift change because there really wasn’t one – that could potentially help in identifying the whole organizational chart.

Q There was considerable discussion during the inquiry about the incident management system and the fact that there were some communication challenges among the various responding agencies. The commissioner has recommended mandatory IMS, and we know the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal is reviewing the provincial system; is it broken and does it need to be fixed?

A Even during the inquiry I had a real concern that the commissioner would make recommendations or changes to incident [management]. I can’t speak for the OPP on their training, or EMS, but I do know the fire incident command works, and I had a real issue that they might end up playing with that going forward with something that doesn’t work.

I think [the commissioner’s] part in those recommendations is making sure we’re all on the same page – that all agencies are on the same page, that we’re all trained to the same standards, share the same terminology, and, of course, everybody works for a united goal.

Q The commissioner’s remarks are pretty scathing in some regards, particularly in terms of the provincial emergency management system. What’s your take on all of that? What needs to be reviewed and how do you create something that works for everybody?

A That’s the problem with the diversity in the province, I mean, it should be able to [work for everyone]. IMS is scalable, and if everyone is speaking the same language there shouldn’t be a problem.

I think what [the commissioner] was referring to is the silos among the different agencies; he did identify in the report that there are definitely silos and we need to take those down and all go for the same common goal.

Q What do you do differently in your department now than before June 23, 2012?

A I think probably the lesson for my officers is the note-taking and the detail that’s required. I’m seeing more detail in their reports and we haven’t had another major incident, but I think everyone sees the value in having a scribe at a big incident – that’s one thing I did pretty much immediately and I’m thankful that I thought to do it because it was something that really helped. When I finally sat down to write [my] notes . . . with the scribe’s notes and the recordings, I was able to piece everything together.

I think we were a pretty tight-knit bunch before [the incident] and probably, if anything, it has made us more tight. I think everyone is also more concerned about our health and safety; obviously if a firefighter goes down it changes the whole focus of what you’re there for, so that seems to be a little more prevalent as well.

As for what ends up happening with the recommendations, we always knew there would be issues on a major call with radio communications and I think that was identified by the commissioner, that there are silos there, and that’s going to be a very difficult one to get over [because of potential costs involved].

Q What about the effect of the incident and the inquiry on your members?

A We’re still monitoring folks; we have a few who have had some issues. Of course, we offered our employee-assistance program and my door is always open, and I go out of my way to talk to those individuals and tell them they’re not alone. I probably feel a lot of the same things that they do, so talking about it and getting it out there is a big help, so we’ll continue to do that.

Q You were a building inspector before you were a fire chief. When you take into consideration the whole report today, how do you feel about it and how do you move on?

A Well the whole report took in 30 or 35 years; the way I look at that, everybody had a couple of pieces of a big puzzle and now we can see the big picture and that’s where the recommendations come from and hopefully that will stop anything like this from happening again.

Q Does the report provide closure for your department?

A I was hoping that it would. I was looking forward to the report and finally putting this behind us. It has been a daily thing and, of course, you’re still trying to do your daily duties and serve your municipality and the citizens. It has been a difficult couple of years.


Q You are speaking over the next while to chief officers at conferences across Ontario about your experience. What will you tell them?

A Well, obviously these events can happen anywhere. I’ve said it before: Elliot Lake should be a fire chief’s dream location, and we still had an event like this. I will probably do a quick summary on the conditions; one of the things I’m the most proud of – at one point I think we had close to 400 people on scene, and we ended up, in those conditions, with just three minor injuries (a shoulder injury, a minor cut hand and a minor ankle sprain), so with the conditions that we dealt with and the fatigue, I’m pretty proud of that fact because we could so easily have had some pretty serious injuries, if not deaths.

I’ll reinforce the note-taking, and some of the recommendations I’d like to see that were put forth by the commission. I tend to agree with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs [which recommended to the commissioner] that a support team for the smaller town fire chiefs is a good idea, and I see that’s a recommendation and it’s one I would like to see happen.

It has been very challenging and very difficult on the department and the community as a whole and it can happen anywhere, there’s no two ways about it.

Q The role of the Ministry of Labour (MOL) at a rescue was unclear to many on the scene, including MOL inspectors and engineers. The province made clear in its submission to the commissioner that the MOL can, indeed, shut down a rescue if workers are at risk – although that didn’t happen here. Is the role of the MOL now clear to the fire service and is there something more that fire should be doing to make that clear to its members?

A I believe it is clear that they have the right to be there; it does cause concern, depending on the capacity in which they are there. If they are there to work in conjunction with the incident commander, then I don’t think I would have so much concern with it. But I do believe – and I think it was mentioned in the commissioner’s report, and I would have the same problem with it – that a MOL presence does tend to make you re-think your decisions, look over your shoulder; you don’t have time to second-guess your decisions and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Right across the province it could be an issue.

Obviously they have the right, so maybe there can be some kind of accommodation between the fire service and the MOL. There are certain things that would be of great value – for example, having access to provincial engineers. When [the collapse] took place we were unable to secure the services of an engineer; those folks work for the province and if we call and ask, they can come, so that would be quite nice.

Q You testified that you didn’t know about the OPP’s search and rescue team, UCRT. UCRT was praised by the commissioner in his report for its quick response, and the Toronto HUSAR team was, in fact, criticized for its slower response – it took them six hours to deploy and then, of course, they had to get to Elliot Lake from Toronto. The commissioner is recommending that the teams work together and he has called for the reinstatement of federal funding for HUSAR, which is unlikely to happen.

Some Elliot Lake residents asked today for a team specifically for northern Ontario, which we know is not financially feasible. I don’t see a solution in the recommendations. Do you?

A I don’t either and I’m not sure where they’re going to go with that. The idea would be that they work under one set of rules; that they work together. If UCRT remains on its own, as its own entity, the two teams still would need to work and train together.

One thing I would like to see, if UCRT is that quick and capable, it would definitely have been a benefit to have their planning chief and their commander come up [to Elliot Lake] so that we could get ahead on things.

They’ve got to work together; if it’s UCRT that’s the light team and if they’re coming up and making provisions, so you have a planning chief and you start formulating an incident-action plan, and all of the sudden the heavy team comes up and they don’t like that plan, well you’ve just wasted a whole bunch of time, so one way or the other they’ve got to get that together.

Q What are you going to do now in your department? Are you going to look at the recommendations and discuss them? How do you bring that closure?

A I think we’ll probably afford everyone an opportunity to review the recommendations, and it will give me an opportunity to thank everyone again for the job that they did.

If there’s anything that we can learn from the report that we can implement immediately, we will.

I think that, manpower permitting, if we can have a scribe for the incident commander – one thing we did learn that was somewhat unfair to someone like [Capt.] John Thomas was that when he replaced me [on scene as incident commander], the scribe came with me; that individual should have had a scribe as well. That would have helped when it was time to recall notes.

One step we’ve taken and I’ve informed council and my boss – the CAO – about is that the fire chief in [nearby] Blind River – if we have another event – will come up as support. Say if there’s was a fire event and I can’t even break away and get to council or the EOC, he will be that person, and I’m a radio call away if there’s any further information that’s needed. We’ve implemented that and I’ll do the same for his community. We have made some changes.

March 2, 2015 
By Laura King

Officer and his department members endured a lengthy inquiry into the emergency response to the mall collapse. Editor Laura King interviewed Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer on Oct. 15

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