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The funding GAP

The mall roof collapse in Elliot Lake, Ont., was a tragic accident. The media focus has been on the response but this incident highlights an even greater potential concern: What would have been the response had the Toronto HUSAR team not been available?

When federal funding for Canada’s five heavy urban search and rescue teams dries up in March, there will be no specialized agencies to respond to disasters such as structural collapses.  Photo by The Canadian Press

This is a legitimate question when we consider that the federal majority funding for these teams will be withdrawn in 2013. What would the response have looked like? Can you imagine the outcry and national embarrassment?

In the 2001 federal budget, $20 million was set aside to develop a national HUSAR program. The intent of the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) funding was to build national response capabilities where none had existed. Teams were set up in Vancouver, Calgary, the province of Manitoba, Toronto, and Halifax, the concept being that the teams would be available regionally as well as for national and international response.

In the case of HUSAR, federal funds covered 75 per cent of the cost to develop these teams. After this initial seed money, ongoing support would come from JEPP funds matched by the provinces and/or municipalities. This represented about $400,000 per team per year or, to quote Deputy Chief Tom Sampson of Calgary’s Task Force 2, “the cost of an empty can of pop” per Canadian per year. A review commissioned by Public Safety Canada of the HUSAR program back in September 2007 stated: “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.”

In the April 2012 budget, the federal government made a decision to withdraw all JEPP funding, stating, “The original objectives of this program, namely, to enhance local emergency preparedness and response capacity, have been met.” Really? By what measure? The federal government’s response to numerous inquiries was that emergency response was a provincial responsibility. According to two different sources within Public Safety Canada, “the management of emergencies continues to be a provincial responsibility. We expect the provinces to cover the cost of items within their capacity,” they said.

If the above statement is true and the federal government wants nothing to do with emergency response, then what about the military’s role in search and rescue? This is a national capability providing expensive assets to support the regions in search and rescue. This was the very same rationale for setting up the HUSAR teams – HUSAR is highly specialized search and rescue. By extending the federal government’s position on provincial responsibility for emergency management, then the military should have no role in military search and rescue – is this next to be cut?

HUSAR capability was developed to rectify a national deficiency. There are no comparable capabilities anywhere in Canada, and what does exist would be a minimum of 72 hours away. The military could respond with the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), command and control, and soldiers. These personnel would be without the skills, training or equipment to perform technical search and rescue. I know this because of my 20 years of experience as a military engineering officer – there is no capability in Canada that matches what the HUSAR teams offer. The prime minister’s suggestion that the military could respond to Elliot Lake was an empty statement. It would have been a great learning experience had Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty called Stephen Harper’s bluff and asked for military assistance. Perhaps then all of Canada would have seen just how thin our national public safety network is.

Federal support for HUSAR is necessary because expecting municipalities to bear the full burden of a regional or national response is unfair. Provinces can choose to pick up the funding slack after Ottawa discontinues its support for the HUSAR teams, but what about the provinces that don’t have HUSAR teams?

If a major earthquake happens in Ottawa or western Quebec, the planned response is to send the HUSAR team from Toronto and potentially other teams. Co-ordinating this type of national response is the ideal role for a federal government – to provide safety and security when there is no viable alternative.

I will be frank: I do not necessarily blame the politicians for cutting the funding; I blame Public Safety Canada. In a brief conversation with Graham Flack, the acting deputy minister for Public Safety Canada, he advised that the decision to cut JEPP funding was made because there are a number of existing higher-profile programs such as aboriginal policing and crime prevention. JEPP was low man on the totem pole.

As JEPP’s funding had not previously been reduced, and the program is seen by bureaucrats as having a lower public profile, it was cut. No consultation was undertaken – so much for building partnerships with the provinces and territories. No one looked at what capabilities emergency-services leaders wanted to retain or the repercussions. Nothing. It was a simple money decision made by public safety policy analysts with no experience in emergency services.

 In my opinion, this is another clear indication of the need for a national fire advisor. Had a national fire advisor been in place when discussions about funding cuts were happening, there would have been someone to argue for the retention of this unique response capability in Canada.

The question over the next year will be whether the provinces or other players will take up the funding. Will agreements among provinces be put in place to maintain regional response? If this cannot be accomplished then the teams will likely disband slowly.

The Elliot Lake roof collapse will quickly fade from the minds of most Canadians. May it  have one benefit: to shine a light on the rush to cut JEPP funding. What is needed is for Canadian fire and emergency services to not let this opportunity pass and to speak up for the HUSAR teams. Let your MP know your views. Who knows – your town could be the next Elliot Lake.

Sean Tracey, P. eng. MIFireE, is the Canadian Regional Director for the National Fire Protection Agency, chair of the board of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at

August 1, 2012  By Sean Tracey

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