Elliot Lake disaster shows HUSAR needs automatic backup

The tragedy in Elliot Lake the weekend before last has given this North Shore community the most national exposure it has ever had.

Sadly, the catapulting of this never-say-die community wasn’t because of its extremely successful retirement living initiative but because of the collapse of the rooftop parking lot of Elliot Lake’s Algo Centre Mall that ended the lives of two of its citizens.

The drama of the first few days, when rescuing at least some of the victims (no-one really knew how many people had been trapped under the collapsed structure until mountains of debris was finally removed four days following the event) was reported as a distinct possibility and hundreds of Elliot Lake’s citizens stood vigil outside the ruined building as the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) team, based in Toronto, was deployed to Elliot Lake.

Local enthusiasm and hope for the success of their rescue mission quickly turned to anger as an analysis of the building indicated that it was very unstable and unsafe for the rescuers to enter and begin to remove debris in order to try and free anyone who might have survived.

Some citizens called on the HUSAR squad to be braver in going about their mission and, as Elliot Lake’s history until very recently was as a mining town, constant comparisons about the unflagging efforts of mine rescue squads were directed at the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team. (Some citizens said publicly that trained mine rescue teams from Sudbury and Timmins had offered to come to assist and were only waiting for a call to do so.)

Ontario Premiere Dalton McGuinty entered the fray early last week, encouraging the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team to keep trying, using whatever means they required. Premiere McGuinty also travelled to Elliot Lake a day later and spent two days there.

Finally, the required heavy equipment was transported by flatbed truck to Elliot Lake, the removal of parts of the building and debris was undertaken by the large machinery without endangering rescue team members until finally they were able to locate and remove the bodies of the two women who had perished in the tragic incident.

While the outcome was a terrible one, the episode must be taken as an enormously important learning opportunity for those people tasked with overseeing, developing training regimens and performing the actual emergency rescues for the HUSAR team.

The group’s commanding office, Bill Neadles, also acted as incident commander at Elliot Lake and, during the course of the four-day ordeal, he explained that his team trains continuously.

He also noted that the last emergency to which his group had been deployed was in 2003 at a gas line explosion in Toronto that claimed three lives.

By their very definitions, the large-scale emergency situations that the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team will be called to assist in will all usually be radically different from one another, and this is undeniably demonstrated by the two actual callouts the HUSAR squad has had: a gas line explosion and, now, a collapsed public building.

No matter how much training the people who work in this field take part in, nothing will prepare them for every eventuality, particularly when their two responses-of-record have been nine years apart.

In the Elliot Lake situation, heavy equipment was required to safely and efficiently do the job and the community witnessed what many people took as public hand-wringing by the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team on the issue until the equipment was ordered, arrived and set to work.

At least to a television audience raptly following the situation in Elliot Lake as it developed, this was the perception.

The professionals gave the impression of being well intentioned but of not knowing what to do next.

The Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team is not called into action very often. Usually local fire department teams are capable of doing what is required and of ordering local support services to assist them.

If a lesson is to be learned about the deployment of the HUSAR squad in large-scale emergencies, as the Elliot Lake example certainly was, it may be that when they are sent to a disaster scene they should be simultaneously dispatched with all of that heavy equipment that eventually followed them to the North Shore town.

In all urban centres today, a 911 call is responded to with police officers, an ambulance and a fire truck. That is just the way it is. Sometimes only personnel from one of these services is needed. Sometimes it’s two services that will play a role and, fairly frequently, there is the need for police, firefighting professionals and also the paramedics and the ambulances they arrive in.

Based on the Elliot Lake situation, a call that merits the deployment of the elite HUSAR crew should also see these people equipped to meet virtually every eventuality, just as a routine 911 call does.

In spite of the old adage, “practice makes perfect,” in fact practice is useful but the real knowledge and confidence comes from experience gained in real-life situations.

We’ve just experienced such a situation; the first one for these particular emergency responders in nine years and what was learned last week is probably worth as much or more than the previous nine years’ of diligent practice using imaginary scenarios.

The premiere has rightly announced that there will be a public enquiry into all aspects of what happened in Elliot Lake, one that will examine everything from the structure of the building and the reasons for its collapse to its periodic structural safety inspections and their corresponding reports to the way in which the rescue efforts were carried out.

This too will provide a learning experience at many different levels and will also likely lead to a tightening of regulations regarding the construction and inspection of these kind of rooftop parking structures. This will be similar to the outcome of the public enquiry into the deaths by e coli-poisoned water in the southwestern Ontario town of Walkerton that has had an enormous impact on the monitoring and treatment of Ontario’s drinking water treatment and distribution systems, both large and very small.

It is hoped, though, that an early and important response, perhaps outside of the enquiry, is to provide the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team with all of the backup services it may need when it is dispatched to any call.