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Laura King   

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Aug. 27, 2013, Toronto - In case some of you found it difficult to read between the lines of the stories, tweets and blogs from the Elliot Lake inquiry last week, let me spell out a couple of the more interesting revelations.

Aug. 27, 2013, Toronto – In case some of you found it difficult to read
between the lines of the stories, tweets and blogs from the Elliot Lake
inquiry last week, let me spell out a couple of the more interesting

Bear with me – there’s a lot of territory to cover. First, incident management, or incident command – the terms were used interchangeably.

When OPP Const. Patrick Waddick and Chief Supt. Robert Bruce testified last week that there was no incident management/command system – as they knew it – in place at the scene of the Algo Centre mall collapse in June 2012, they meant that the OPP, as an emergency response agency, did not recognize the system used by the Elliot Lake Fire Department, because the OPP uses its own, different version of incident command.

“To my understanding in Elliot Lake, as we know it, the incident command system was not in place,” Bruce said Friday.

There was, indeed, as Fire Chief Paul Officer and Elliot Lake Fire Department captains John Thomas and Darren Connors testified earlier in the week, an incident management system in place at the collapse scene: Chief Officer was the overall IC and HUSAR’s Bill Neadles ran the rescue sector.

But the testimony certainly shed light on the lack of co-ordination between the province’s two urban search and rescue teams – the OPP’s UCRT and Toronto’s HUSAR – and between fire and police in Ontario, which is the point of this phase of the inquiry.

The OPP’s incident command system, as explained by Chief Supt. Bruce on Friday, is detailed and logical, with a hierarchy of commanders reporting to one critical incident commander (although there was no OPP critical incident commander on scene in Elliot Lake); all UCRT members have had ICS training, the inquiry heard.

Chief Officer and captains Thomas and Connors testified that they also have IMS training.

Some background.

In 2008 – well after SARS and the southern Ontario blackout of 2003 – the province’s Ministry of Community Safety, with input from 30 emergency management organizations and in conjunction with the National Fire Services Incident Management System Consortium (which merged the Phoenix and California systems), developed an IMS for Ontario.

Further, a Ministry of Labour guidance note says that every Ontario fire department should develop and implement an ICS that meets it own needs and circumstances.

And, as the ministry website says, IMS “provides standardized organizational structures, functions, processes and terminology for use at all levels of emergency response in Ontario.” Except the OPP, it seems.

That said, there’s also lack of consistency among fire departments when it comes to incident command. Some are familiar with the incident command system promoted by ICS Canada; some follow the Brunacini Blue Card incident command and control program; and some train on the Ontario IMS, which, according to the ministry website, is “adapted to suit Ontario's unique governmental structures and emergency legislation and regulations.”

Which is fine, because, I’m told, Ontario fire departments are not required to use the provincial IMS, which is meant for large-scale incidents – such as the Algo Centre collapse, presumably – and not necessarily for day-to-day fire operations.

Presumably, then, given the time spent on this issue, the inquiry’s recommendations will include some suggestions for better co-ordination of the systems and the agencies that use them.

Which takes us back to the disconnect between the OPP’s UCRT and HUSAR and the brilliant turn of phrase by commission counsel Bruce Carr-Harris, who said it appeared, from looking at an emergency-response flow chart, that two sides “are operating in relatively splendid isolation” in situations in which they could end up jointly deployed to an incident.

“There is really no requirement,” Carr-Harris noted, “for co-ordination or discussion and communication between the two bodies that are going to show up and do the job. The only co-ordination that is identified is between the OPP and the Office of the Fire Marshal as to what is going on and so on.”

The issue was explored further yesterday when OPP Const. Ryan Cox was asked by commission counsel and by City of Toronto/HUSAR lawyer Richard Oliver about the relationship between the two rescue teams and the confusion surrounding the halting of the search for victims.

Cox said there were no issues with the work performed by members of UCRT or HUSAR, rather frustration over how things were done – misunderstandings and lack of communication.

Chief Supt. Bruce had testified Friday that the OPP should have had a critical incident commander at the scene to improve command and communication, and that the force has since changed its protocols. Indeed, he said, the force failed the OPP’s Sgt. Jamie Gillespie, who had his hands full at the scene, by not having a more senior and experienced staff sergeant in Elliot Lake.

Bruce said he wasn’t sure that operationally anything could have been done differently, but that better command and control would have prevented much of the confusion at the scene.

Which brings me to the second revelation: communication, or lack thereof. Not among the responders, but with the rest of us.

It seems clear to me that so much of what is being discussed and debated at the inquiry wouldn’t be necessary had the facts about the Algo Centre collapse been accurately reported in the first place – particularly the fact that there were just two people under the rubble, not more than 30, as CTV reported, and not dozens, as CBC’s The National had said. Just two.

Just two does not minimize the state of neglect at the Algo Centre, the magnitude of the rescue effort, or the loss for the families of Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo and the people of Elliot Lake.

But just two would have altered the reporting of and the reaction to the incident. It might have saved taxpayers some money – today is Day 92 of the inquiry and the commission is months behind schedule.

The problem, as we heard from Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer last week, was that he was prevented by members of his community control group – a body appointed under the community emergency response plan – and, in particular, OPP Insp. Percy Jollymore, from telling his rattled community that there were just two people inside, and that at least one of them was dead.

"I wanted that information out," Officer said.

Indeed, Officer testified, his training provided by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal had taught him “that in extraordinary circumstances it’s often best to release more information than you normally would.”

At the time, Officer said, firefighters had not identified the body of Doloris Perizzolo but they knew the deceased was an elderly female, and they knew there was another potential victim.

“I know how the media operate,” Officer said. “And [media coaches] use the term feed the beast; [the media] have deadlines and if they’re not getting [information] from the people in the know, they’re going to guy on the corner, and that’s what happened.”

Officer said he recognized that the OPP may have protocols for releasing information – testimony later in the week by Chief. Supt. Bruce confirmed that the OPP can not release that kind of information without confirmation from a coroner – but in extraordinary circumstances such as the mall collapse, Officer said he believed it was in the best interest of his community to let people know what was going on.

“Misinforming the public could have an impact,” commission counsel Mark Wallace asked Officer.

“It wasn’t misinforming them,” Officer said. “It wasn’t releasing the information that I wanted released. That information just wasn’t released.

“I wasn’t happy with the result,” Officer said, referring to the fact that some members of the community control group supported Jollymore’s preference that the information not be disseminated.

Asked why he didn’t force the issue, Officer said his priority was to move on and deal the incident.

“If the consensus is moving in that direction,” Officer said, “you don’t have time to sit there and debate it over and over. You keep a united front.”

Officer later said he sought – and received – support from HUSAR team leader Bill Neadles to release the information, but not everyone agreed.

Indeed, on Sunday, June 24, at about 1 p.m. the City of Elliot Lake put out a press release that said there was “no confirmation of loss of life” and that the operation was “still a rescue.”

“I was concerned that it was going to create this bubble,” Officer said. “And it was going to get bigger and bigger and it did. The people were starving for facts and that goes back to what I said about extraordinary circumstances . . . the social media today – this went global within 10 minutes . . . How do you keep on top of that? That’s why I felt when we had opportunity we had to get information out . . . My earlier concern was 30 people trapped – there were not 30 people trapped.”

Different protocols, different thought processes, different mandates. Presumably – once more – the inquiry recommendations will have something to say about that.

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