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Nov. 13, 2013, Toronto - Yesterday, in Elliot Lake, the lawyer for the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs expanded on the association’s written summation; today, I will do the same.

Nov. 13, 2013, Toronto – Yesterday, in Elliot Lake, the lawyer for the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs expanded on the association’s written summation; today, I will do the same.

For three hours Tuesday morning, lawyers for all parties with standing in the rescue portion of the inquiry into the collapse of the Algo Centre mall in June 2012 reviewed or elaborated on their submissions to Commissioner Paul Belanger, who will make his recommendations early next year.

The OAFC included four recommendations in its written submission, which was due last Friday (you can read about them here). Yesterday, I questioned the brevity of the written submission and wondered why issues such as incident management, interoperable communication, and communication in general – among first responders and with the media – hadn’t been addressed.

I watched Saunders’ presentation online last evening after a work seminar (which prohibited me from live tweeting about yesterday’s proceedings). Essentially, Saunders dealt with all the issues I raised yesterday and he did so eloquently. (Keep reading – details are below.)


OAFC president Matt Pegg is in meetings today so I’m waiting for an e-mail back from Saunders who I hope will explain why the written submission did not mention incident management or communication, which were both major issues at the inquiry.

Saunders was third up yesterday after the Elliot Lake Mall Action Committee and Richard Oliver, the lawyer for the City of Toronto and its HUSAR team. Before outlining the OAFC’s recommendations, Saunders implored the commissioner to be practical in his recommendations, noting that there are more than 450 fire departments in Ontario with 11,000 full time and 20,000 volunteer firefighters.

“What comes out of this inquiry needs to work for both of those types of departments,” Saunders said. “Not all of those firefighters are going to become rescue specialist; not all of the municipalities are going to train, equip and allow their firefighters to develop a level of expertise which will be utilized in every situation, so we need to be practical in terms of what we come up with.”

Saunders also cautioned the commissioner that recommendations that would cost municipalities money are, essentially, ineffective.

“Ultimately, he said, “it’s the municipal council as the voice of the public that will decide the type of fire service that will exist within any community, so we would ask that any recommendations consider that practical reality.”

Still, Saunders encouraged the commissioner to be bold.

“There are problems in this system and we think that we can fix, solve tweak some of those problems,” he said. “And we would ask you not to be shy and not to be timid in coming forth with some of those recommendations; we would ask you to help us make a better system for emergency services and rescue across this province.”

Saunders then proposed that the commissioner recommend that:

  • it be clearly recognized that the most senior ranking member of the fire department is the incident commander at a rescue scene
  • rescue be recognized as the exclusive purview of fire
  • the Occupational Health & Safety Act (and possibly the Fire Protection and Prevention Act) be amended so that the Ministry of Labour has no authority in a rescue
  • the province provide and pay for the necessary training so that all emergency responders are proficient in its incident management system
  • written incident action plans and scribes (to take notes during incidents) not be made mandatory (this is in response to recommendations from others that both be required)
  • although interoperable communication is an issue of concern among first responders, it is unrealistic to expect municipalities to spend the money necessary to achieve this goal
  • during major incidents, the municipality – not the province – control the media and designate a media spokesperson
  • Ottawa reinstate its portion of funding for Canada’s HUSAR teams but if that fails, HUSAR funding should become a provincial responsibility.

Given the magnitude of the inquiry and the potential impact of the commissioner’s recommendations – which are expected by March – it’s worth reviewing Saunders’ comments on some of the proposed recommendations.

In Elliot Lake, Saunders said, the most senior-ranking member of the fire department was the incident commander on scene. Initially, he said, this was Capt. David George, who passed the IC role to Fire Chief Paul Officer when he arrived.

“From a policy perspective,” Saunders said, “that’s how it should be. The incident commander at a rescue should be the fire chief or his designate or the senior fire official at a scene. That’s consistent with the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, whereby rescue is the mandate of the fire service in this province.”

While most responders – members of the HUSAR team, the OPP’s UCRT team and the Office of the Fire Marshal – recognized Officer’s authority, Saunders said, OPP detachment commander Percy Jollymore did not appear to have done so.

“He referred to himself as the incident commander during the press conferences that we listened to throughout this proceeding,” Saunders said. “He had members of the OPP engage in actions which, although well motivated, were not directly helpful to the rescue effort and may, in fact, have harmed the rescue effort.”

“Clearly,” Saunders said, “the local OPP needed to treat Paul Officer as the incident commander and a recommendation from yourself that would help to clarify that would be helpful.”

Further, Saunders said, fire departments in Ontario are trained in rescue and, under the FPPA, have jurisdiction over rescue incidents,

“At the end of the day it’s the fire departments that have the skills, the equipment, the training; they are the specialists in rescue.”

Under the Police Services Act, he said, rescue is not a core policing service.

“Bluntly put,” Saunders said, “police officers are not primary rescue providers. So I ask, in a world of scarce resources, could and should the UCRT team continue in existence to provide rescue services? Could that funding by the province be better allocated to the HUSAR team? Could it be better allocated to other fire departments across the province to supplement their rescue efforts? In our opinion, it doesn’t make sense to fund the police to provide a service that is not part of their key mandate.

“The UCRT team did a fantastic job in Elliot Lake,” Saunders said, “ . . . but the question is, in building a better system, could those funds be allocated to others and in our respectful submission that’s something you need to consider.”

As for the role of the Ministry of Labour in a rescue (see yesterday’s blog for background), Saunders said the OAFC believes the MOL should not have the authority to intervene in a rescue.

Incident commanders, Saunders said, have the authority to make decisions about rescuers’ safety and are accountable for those decisions.

“But when time is of the essence, the incident commander should not be looking over his or her shoulder to determine if the Ministry of Labour inspector is in agreement with the incident commander’s decision,” Saunders said.

Incident management was the most dwelled-upon matter at the inquiry. Although the IAFF submission to Commissioner Belanger calls for the province’s incident management system to be mandatory for municipalities, the OAFC is instead calling for a more manageable system and increased provincial support through training.

There’s general agreement in the fire service that Ontario’s incident management system – which is outlined in a 140-page document – is unwieldy and doesn’t work for all sizes and types of departments. (The province, in its submission to the commissioner, says it will review the system.)

“In our respectful position,” Saunders said, “it needs to be altered so that it can apply to both large and small fire departments and large and small rescue incidents. What works in Toronto doesn’t work in Elliot Lake and won’t work in the 100 per cent volunteer departments in the extreme rural parts of this province.”

Further, Saunders said, all parties at a rescue, for example, must play a part in that incident management system – fire, police, EMS, public health, the OFM, the MOL.

“If the province is going to push incident management there has to be full training and frankly in terms of cost, paid for by them,” he said.

“And it’s not just training for fire departments. Everyone has to be on board. Police and fire have to work together under that incident management system because obviously in Elliot Lake, not everyone was singing from the same song sheet; we had people who didn’t understand titles, [and] not everyone seemed to understand the hierarchical structure that needs to exist in an emergency and a rescue.”

All of which leads to communication, or the lack thereof, and, in particular, the decision by the Elliot Lake community control group not to tell reporters early on that there were just two people in the rubble and that at least one was deceased.

“There is no doubt,” Saunders said, “that in this particular set of circumstances the lack of clear media communication and communication in general caused problems.

“From our perspective the answer is bring in the experts – there are public relations people who are available 24/7 that can be utilized . . . people who understand how to handle the situation. This situation caused national media to be present; someone made the comment you have to feed the beast and that’s the reality, and if you don’t tell the media something and control what they’re writing, they have deadlines and they’re going to write something and it’s better that they write what’s the truth and what the incident commander and/or his communications person wants them to hear.”

Saunders was adamant that the municipality, through the incident commander, control the media and that the province stay out of things unless otherwise directed by the IC.

“You cannot have different people speaking for the municipality, otherwise what you have is inconsistent messages,” he said.

“Frankly what we needed more of in this case was a message.”

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