By Laura King
Oct. 15, 2014, Elliot Lake, Ont. – In case you had trouble reading between the lines earlier today when I wrote about the poorly executed emergency response to the mall collapse here in June 2012, let me spell it out for you.
Basically, as we heard during the seven-month inquiry into the collapse and the response to it – and as inquiry commissioner Paul Belanger reiterated in his report – no one had a Plan B, a what-to-do-next strategy after traditional heavy urban search and rescue methods to find two women buried in the rubble proved no match for the concrete and steel of the Algo Centre.
In other words, the province’s emergency management system for this kind of rescue operation was ineffective.
Which is why former premier Dalton McGuinty forced the issue and called in heavy equipment.
It may be one of the few things the province did right, if Belanger’s report is any indication.
Clearly recognizing that the provincial incident management system and other processes didn’t work well in Elliot Lake, the province said last November that it would review IMS, figure out how the HUSAR team and the OPP’s specialized search and rescue team – called UCRT – could train together, and improve communication among agencies.
Wednesday in Elliot Lake, Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi and Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur – Naqvi’s predecessor in the community safety portfolio – outlined Ontario’s plan to improve things for first responders in an announcement-like press conference.
Except that there’s wasn’t much new.
The province, Meilleur said, is reviewing IMS. Which it said it would a year ago.
Naqvi, when asked (by me) for specifics and a timeline, could provide neither, but promised to find out and get back to me. Fair enough. The guy has been in community safety only since June and it’s a big department, but a cynical reporter might assume that given the significance of IMS during the inquiry and the weight given to it in Belanger’s report, the minister might have been better prepared. (Not to mention that I had emailed his office, the OFM, and the lawyers for the province last week and asked those exact questions, so it might have been prudent of his handlers to assume that I might also ask them here.)
The province is, Naqvi said, working with the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management, and fire chiefs (although he couldn’t say which ones).
The OFMEM has declined requests for details on the IMS process; when asked again today if I could speak with the fire marshal by phone – I emailed him directly, as he has encouraged me to do – I was asked by his communications staffer to send my questions by email “and we’ll go from there.” That reply, of course, landed on my BlackBerry after the Naqvi/Meilleur press conference and as I was doing a sit-down interview with Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer, and then it was 4:30 p.m. and after government work hours, so I didn’t bother.
Regardless, Meilleur and Naqvi also promised to help to create local incident support teams – which Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer said later Wednesday would be a step forward; indeed, he said, he has already set up a reciprocal system with neighbouring Blind River so either chief would help the other during an incident of any magnitude.
Officer was a no-show at inquiry commissioner Belanger’s lengthy press conference this morning – perhaps a good move given that the fire chief would have been the only representative present from any of the agencies that responded to the collapse. No OPP. No UCRT. No HUSAR. No OFM. No one from the Ministry of Labour. Rather a well-orchestrated political moment in front of the still-angry people of Elliot Lake, who ate up all the we’re-in-this-with-you-and-making-change rhetoric.
Goodness knows that for Officer – given that he was a building inspector before he became fire chief and, as he testified and Belanger noted, was therefore one of many municipal employees caught in the process that led to the collapse – absence may have been well advised. It wasn’t Officer’s decision, he told me; his handlers, he said, kept him away from the cameras.
Unlike the politicians.