By Laura King
Oct. 14, 2014, Toronto - Three of Canada’s four remaining HUSAR teams are likely to downsize and become regional response teams without renewed federal funding for the heavy urban search and rescue sector.
Oct. 14, 2014, Toronto – Three of Canada’s four remaining HUSAR teams are likely to downsize and become regional response teams without renewed federal funding for the heavy urban search and rescue sector.
The four teams – Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Manitoba’s provincial team – are operating at status quo, says Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney. But Vancouver’s team will run out of federal money after next year and the Calgary and Toronto teams may face similar circumstances. (There were five HUSAR teams but Halifax’s team has disbanded.)
Toronto’s HUSAR team was last deployed to Elliot Lake, Ont., after the Algo Centre mall collapsed in June 2012. The report into the collapse and the emergency response to it will be released at 11 a.m. tomorrow. Inquiry witnesses and lawyers for several groups recommended that commissioner Paul Belanger call for Ottawa to reinstate funding for HUSAR.
McKearney, along with Calgary Deputy Chief Len MacCharles and others have tried unsuccessfully to convince Public Safety Canada to continue to contribute money to the four teams. Ottawa cut off funding under the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program in March 2013.
Public Safety Canada says on its website that it has contributed $23 million to HUSAR and light-rescue teams since 2001. It also says emergency management is a core government responsibility, notes that Ottawa encourages a co-ordinated approach to emergency management, lists urban search and rescue as part of the response strategy and outlines the teams’ needs – some of which cannot be met without federal dollars and which won’t be an issue, until the next building collapse. And there will be one.
Publicly, Ottawa now says emergency response is a local responsibility.
Indeed the parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety told the CBC after the mall collapse that the provinces are on their own.
“We funded them [the provinces] up until this point. It’s time for them to step up and continue with the funding and the training. It is their responsibility.”
HUSAR proponents had asked Ottawa to designate $1.6 million for the four teams – $400,000 each annually – to maintain a national HUSAR program.
Toronto team co-ordinator Tony Comella told the inquiry the team received between $460,000 and $1.4 million annually from Ottawa.
Essentially, the federal money covers equipment, Comella said, which will, over time, need to be replaced. Over the next three to five years, Comella said, the equipment will cycle out and the team cannot afford to replace it without federal funding.
As John Saunders, the lawyer for the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, noted in his final submission to the inquiry, “As a result, decisions would have to be made about what to do with the team at that point. One option would be to demobilize the team.”
That is worrisome, Saunders said, as the province’s commissioner of community safety confirmed during his testimony at the inquiry that there is a need for a HUSAR team in Ontario.
The requested $1.6 million is a drop in the proverbial bucket, particularly given Ottawa’s pretty fiscal picture.
The federal books are in the black, way ahead of schedule. Indeed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a business audience near Toronto on Oct. 2 that the deficit for the 2013-14 fiscal year is $5.2 billion, or an $11-billion improvement over the last official estimate. By next year, Ottawa is expected to show a succession of surpluses, beginning with $5 billion, just in time for an election.
“This isn’t a lot of funds,” McKearney said. “However, cities like Vancouver are already shouldering a significant expense to maintain Canada Taskforce-1 and will not be able to maintain this level as of 2016.”
Former Toronto Fire Chief Bill Stewart, who helped to secure provincial funding for the team back in 2002, said in an e-mail exchange that even if Belanger recommends that Ottawa fund the teams it’s unlikely that will happen.
“Given the cutbacks by Ottawa to public-safety programs it is doubtful the funding will be restored based on Elliott Lake,” he said.
Public Safety Canada previously reviewed funding for HUSAR in 2007 and determined that cutting federal funding would cripple the teams.
A Google search for HUSAR turned up a pre-2007 story in Fire Fighting in Canada about funding. The teams face many challenges meeting their mandates, not the least of which is money, the story said.
“There is never enough money,” said Lance Stephenson, former team leader of the Can-TF2 team based in Calgary. “Sustainability and knowing if the [federal] money will come every year is the biggest worry.”
The inquiry report will be available online after 11 a.m. at www.elliotlakeenquiry.ca