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Laura King   

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Aug. 20, 2011, Elliot Lake, Ont. – Elliot Lake Fire Department Capt. John Thomas resumed his testimony this morning here in Elliot Lake, a picturesque city dotted with freshwater lakes and a proud history of mining.

Aug. 20, 2011, Elliot Lake, Ont. – Elliot Lake Fire Department Capt. John Thomas resumed his testimony this morning here in Elliot Lake, a picturesque city dotted with freshwater lakes and a proud history of mining.

Thomas, who is originally from North Sydney, N.S., (there’s always a connection) but has been a firefighter in Elliot Lake for almost 19 years, is plain spoken and blunt in his answers; he has painted a clear picture of the response to the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in June 2012.

Some observations from last week’s testimony (which I read over the weekend), starting with that of Coby Duerr, who heads Calgary’s HUSAR team and came to Elliot Lake as an observer after the mall collapse to witness Toronto’s team in action.

In his testimony last Wednesday, Duerr was asked by John Saunders, lawyer for the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC), if he believes the capacity of the national HUSAR program has been compromised by Ottawa’s decision to do away with the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program and, therefore, federal funding for the country’s four remaining HUSAR teams.


“Very much so,” Duerr said.

Further, Duerr was asked by Saunders about unified command and how it works on a scene with multiple jurisdictions on site – such as police, fire and EMS.

“An effective response,” Duerr said, “always has a singular incident commander.

“To run a command structure by committee doesn’t work.”

“So,” Saunders said, “unless someone is invited by the incident commander to participate in that process, well-intentioned individuals are to, bluntly, stay behind the yellow tape?”

“For all intents and purposes, yes.”

Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer testifies tomorrow, when he is expected to shed further light on how the incident-management system worked on the day of the collapse and in the days following.

With the OPP’s USAR/CBRNE team (know as UCRT) on scene, along with the Toronto’s HUSAR team, ministry of labour inspectors and others, there has been considerable discussion in emergency management circles in Ontario about whether the provincial incident management system worked as envisioned, and about the roles of the various responding agencies. Wednesday’s testimony promises to be interesting.

Earlier, on Aug. 9, Dan Hefkey, Ontario’s commissioner for community safety, had explained in detail the province’s incident-management system, and unified command. In a multi-jurisdictional incidents that involve firefighting responsibilities – a structure fire or rescue from a collapsed building, for example (fire has exclusive jurisdiction over rescue in Ontario) – Hefkey noted that the fire chief would be the incident commander and would remain so for the duration of the incident, other than to hand off to a designate to take a break or attend a briefing.

“But to be clear,” Saunders asked, “it is not well-intentioned other people who are to be making those ultimate decisions?

“So well-intentioned politicians, for example, who are not the incident commander should not be making ultimate decisions with regard to what happens at an emergency scene? Let me be even more personal. It is not for the Commission[er] of Community Safety to make that operational decision?”

Hefkey agreed with Saunders, who further noted that such decisions are not made by mayors or councillors or other fire, police or EMS personnel.

“Yes,” Hefkey said.

Saunders also asked Hefkey whether there is a need for a HUSAR team in Toronto.

“Yes,” Hefkey said, adding that the team is trained to NFPA standards.

Also last week, lawyers for the OAFC and other organizations asked to have the coroner’s reports on victims Doloris Perizzolo and Lucie Aylwin entered as evidence before Capt. Thomas and others testified. The motion was denied but the fact that the lawyers were so keen to have the report entered would lead a trained observer to assume certain things.

Indeed, Saunders – who has, of course, read the coroner’s report – said Tuesday while questioning Capt. Thomas that if the report indicates that the death of Lucie Aylwin was caused by crush asphyxia, and that she died almost immediately, might the sounds Thomas heard have been something else.

Thomas had found Perizzolo’s body and believes he heard Aylwin responding to him when he called out, asking if anyone could hear him. Saunders asked if the noises could have been caused by anything else but Thomas said no, the noises came in response to his call outs.

Thomas had earlier testified that he was inside the mall looking for victims when Elliot Lake’s safety officer, Ken Barnes, determined that it was too dangerous for firefighters to stay inside and ordered the crew out of the building.

Barnes “said things were shifting and we are done,” Thomas said.

“He said we had done all that we could do.”

Both Duerr and Thomas said heavy equipment could not have been brought in at that time – early Saturday evening, the day of the collapse – because the building was too unstable.

“There are structural engineers on the HUSAR teams that help with this,” Duerr said. “They have expertise beyond firefighters on calculating loads, centres of gravity, . . . that far exceed ours.”

Duerr said the structure was dynamic – or still moving.

“So when we look at that, if it is still dynamic in nature, it increases the risk significantly.”

Duerr said an incident commander would rely on numerous people to provide insight into the situation to determine safety for responders.

“I would never second guess a structural engineer,” he said. “A structural engineer has capacity beyond mine to determine whether or not the building is static or in a dynamic state. So therefore, I rely upon those individuals to report in to the decision makers and then they take all that information and make a calculation from that, or make a decision from that perspective.

“My first priority as a task force commander is to make sure all my team gets home safe and that is [the] number one priority.”

Thomas gave similar testimony when asked about offers of help from local miners and public works employees.

“. . . the way things were moving and dropping and the pieces we wanted to cut, and there was so much stuff hanging down, you know, and I was getting nervous,” Thomas said. “I was starting to think, OK, somebody is going to get killed, you know, if somebody slips and falls, that is it, we are done . . .

Because, Saunders asked, besides wanting to save those who were inside, Thomas also had to think about the safety of his men?


“So that they would go home at night?” Saunders asked.

“Because,” said Saunders, “it wasn’t going to help anything to someone else get injured or die in that pile?”

“It would have made things worse.”

This morning, Thomas testified that an OPP helicopter, which had not been requested by the Elliot Lake Fire Department through the incident commander, was flying over the site and causing debris in the collapsed mall – primarily a precariously hanging beam – to sway. Having not called for the helicopter, the incident commander had no opportunity to warn those on scene of the potential danger caused by the downwind caused by the chopper.

Asked Tuesday morning by the lawyer for Toronto’s HUSAR team whether team members took command when they arrived, Thomas said no, the Elliot Lake Fire Department maintained command.

Thomas had said earlier, when being questioned by commission counsel Nadia Authier, that he helped to find food and other necessities for HUSAR members after they arrived at about 4 a.m. on Sunday, June 24.

“I was pretty much trying to fulfill their needs and trying to get their guys fed, trying to make housing arrangements for them and stuff like that,” Thomas said.

“So I understood how it was going to work. I knew that it was Elliot Lake Fire Department’s scene, and they were there to assist us.”

“All right,” Authier said. “And that is based on what Chief Officer told you or your understanding of how it’s supposed to work?

“That is how incident command works.”

Thomas was asked this morning about communication with residents and said it wasn’t handled well. The notion that up to 31 people were trapped in the mall – which came from inaccurate media reports – was bizarre, he said. Under Ontario’s incident management system, an information officer is to be assigned.

“People should have been updated,” he said, “known we were inside.”

“The media reports were wrong.”

Having given a couple of presentations now on the media coverage of the aftermath of the mall collapse and the inaccurate reporting, I’m anxious to hear what went wrong – who decided not to follow the recommended IMS protocol and give reporters accurate information.

Elliot Lake firefighter Darren Connors testifies this afternoon.

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