On the Elliot Lake Mall collapse

Most people in Canada have probably read or heard about the mall roof collapse in Elliot Lake, a small town in Ontario. Any SAR member was probably paying attention when Bill Needles, spokesman for Toronto’s Heavy Urban SAR Team (CAN-TF3) said the following

The building is unsafe, totally unsafe… I had to make the decision that it is not safe to put the workers back in there because it could be a devastating collapse,

This immediately led to a hue and cry, and a political response. Today we have the Mayor of Elliot Lake Rick Hamilton talking to the Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty, who in turn is talking to the Prime Minister.

This is the worse case scenario for a rescuer — the politicians are putting pressure on front line workers to reverse their decision on the safety of moving forward on a rescue response.

Think about this for a moment. Toronto HUSAR are undeniable experts in their field. They are an internationally recognized rescue team, one of five qualified heavy urban SAR (HUSAR) teams in Canada, and the highest qualified in their field in this country. They’ve examined the situation and made the determination that it is too dangerous to continue the rescue effort.

If anything, officials at all levels of the emergency services should have their backs on this decision – supporting them is the only thing an untrained and uninformed person in political office should be doing.

Instead, several politicians at all levels of government are using this opportunity to be seen to be making political points. Dalton McGuinty in particular seems to be taking the “credit” for convincing the HUSAR guys to continue the rescue effort.

I can best sum this up in the words of Don Bindon, president of BCSARA

Though it may be a hard pill to swallow, rescuers have to put their own safety first. It’s difficult for civilians to understand … but as a commander, you cannot allow yourself to get caught up in the desire to do very good things at the serious risk of the people that are doing the work,”

Rescue work can be dangerous. 90% of the work is evaluating the risk and mitigating it by using techniques, procedures, and safety equipment. Once in a while the risk exceeds all ability to mitigate it, and it’s at this point we make the Go/No Go decision. The experts made the No Go decision.

How would the politicians going to feel if their pressure results in a rescuer getting killed?


Update: It appears the experts from around the continent are agreeing with my assessment:

11 Comments on “On the Elliot Lake Mall collapse

  1. There is absolutely no obligation, moral or otherwise, to stand behind the SAR team here unquestioningly. There is never an obligation to be unthinkingly sycophantic of any agency, ever.

    The concern is not that HUSAR made a No-Go decision. Not being reckless and refusing to take unnecessary risks is understandable and expected. What is morally reprehensible is that this team announced it was giving up and resorting to bulldozing the mall down when there was STILL A SURVIVOR expected to be inside. As a trained SAR volunteer you should know that you do not give up until the odds of survival have dropped well past zero. That does not obligate HUSAR to be reckless. It does mean they have to try every tactic possible to save the victim until they have every reason to believe the person inside is dead. Even if that means you take the mall apart petty rock by rock, you still try.

    So while it’s bad that Mr. McGuinty overrode the team’s decision, it’s far, far worse that he had to.

    • There is no obligation for a rescuer to needlessly put their lives at risk, especially when that rescuer is a volunteer. To have a politician step in in this way ignorant of the details, and to make the “heroic” political points is completely disgusting.

      Consider that making the no-go decision is the hardest thing a rescuer may ever have to do; I’ve been part of searches where we’ve been called back, and had to shut down the rescue because conditions were too dangerous. It’s incredibly hard, and not taken lightly.

  2. Totally agree Mike.

    Furthermore, I don’t think McGuinty is in anyway changing the plan. He is trying getting credit for continuing the same plan on a slightly accelerated time-frame and trying to save face for what is perceived as a poor provincial response. This is now a government funded demolition and recovery. The decision to end the rescue phase by Toronto HUSAR was a difficult triage of risk, time and likelihood of finding victims.

    All the requests for mine rescue, DART, local volunteers “willing to go in there” etc are way off. Toronto HUSAR are the best suited for this job and should be supported. This armchair rescuing demonstrates ignorance in the challenges faced in this rescue. Whatever solution you can see through your TV was probably considered. The missing people aren’t locked in the mall washrooms, they are under huge hunks of concrete in the middle of a building surrounded by three stories of hang-fire.

    And on a final note, (Provincial and Federal politicians please take note) There is chronic underfunding of HUSAR in Canada. Made particularly worse by the recent federal cuts to JEPP grants which effectively kneecaps every HUSAR team in Canada starting next year. If we want these teams to be effective during their rare deployments, we need to fund them properly and support them through training and large exercises.

  3. I must side with Joan on this. Having been a paid rescuer and collapse rescue technician trainer for years (FEMA Teams), I concur that this decision to cease operations so early is utterly disgusting.

    As noted by Joan, this is not to suggest that rescuers should take unnecessary risk but the profession by it’s nature (paid or volunteer) involves risk and every rescuer knows this. At no time on my career as a Firefighter and Technical Rescue Team Leader have I participated in a rescue operation that involved no risk. Anyone who suggests all risk can be mitigated is wrong. Full stop.

    There are any number of strategic and tactical decisions, processes and tools that can be deployed to stabilize virtually any structure regardless of state or condition. Understandably, this could take time and the victim, may well parish before rescue is concluded but USAR teams have rescued victims well after a collapse incident. With this in mind any rescuer should remain committed to the completion of a SAFE and systematic rescue until statistics indicate that chances of survivability is nonexistent. Knowing this, Toronto HUSAR’s decision to prematurely stop operations is very difficult for even a seasoned professional to understand. In fact, it’s shocking.

    The members of this team should do some soul searching as this rescue operation is in order of magnitude simpler than anything they will find when Vancouver take the big hit. HUSAR is very dangerous work but lives have been save weeks after collapse incidents because rescue members haven’t quit. Toronto HUSAR is learning that the real thing is very different than practicing in a controlled environment. So to TO HUSAR, get busy. Do it safe but keep going.

    As an aside your assertion that a paid vs. volunteer rescue has a greater obligation to the public is an interesting one and is counter to what volunteer groups have been screaming for years. “We are just as good as paid professional emergency responders!” Simply put, you can’t have it both ways. Either you are a professional rescuer or you are not. You do not have the luxury of tapping out when the shit hits that fan claiming “I’m just a volunteer.”

    • I did not imply that all risk was mitigated, I stated that risk was managed and when it exceeds a certain level, a “Go/No Go” decision is made. There are no circumstanced where rescuers lives should be needlessly endangered. Once the risk crosses that threshold, that’s it. This is common to all emergency services except the military.

      Rescuers take their jobs seriously, and you and I are merely reading some very bad reporting on the issue. You can bet that the decision to stop was not taken lightly. You don’t have all the information, and I am willing to give the experts on the scene the benefit of the doubt.

      All that being said, I believe the entire issue we’re talking about comes from a badly worded press conference. My guess is that the spokesman meant to say that the tactics were changing because the building was too unstable to put people in there.

      In this case, the disdain should be reserved for the politicians who are taking this opportunity to appear to “come to the rescue” when from what I can tell the current operations are exactly what would be happening anyway — the controlled demolition of the site to recover bodies.

      I, like anyone else, hope someone will be found alive.

      I also believe you misread me on the issue of paid versus unpaid, and the level of risk.

  4. Disdain for politicians would imply I had some respect for them to begin with :)

    No life, rescuer or otherwise should be needlessly endangered and I don’t think anyone has proposed this. I think what needs to be understood about HUSAR is the there is no risk that is too great to overcome. What has been suggested by Joan is that HUSAR operating theatres can be controlled. Time and equipment are typically plentiful (certainly in an isolated incident of this nature) and crews can always work from a point of safety. Contrast this against a swift water or confined space rescue where urgency and and unforgiving environment often combine for lethal effect when over anxious, though well intentioned rescuers arrive on scene – one of the reasons we kill more rescuers here than anywhere else. HUSAR in contrast is measured and deliberate….there is no reason for taking on unnecessary risk but at the same time, there is little reason to stop trying to reduce that same risk while the prospects of a rescue exist.

    To your comment, if HUSAR did in fact call this rescue off, they did so prematurely and any member from an experienced HUSAR Team would agree. With the utmost of respect to TO’s HUSAR team, they have very limited operational experience (collapse) and have much to learn – this will come in time. I don’t need to be on site to comfortably disagree with their decision, if that is in fact what happened (key part). That said, I’d much rather subscribe to your theory that the media butchered a soundbite and that HUSAR had simply indicated that they were changing tactics with the intent of reducing risk to members in step with reduced probability of survival.

    If I misread your paid vs. volunteer comment, I apologize.

    • AC, you may know more about HUSAR than I do, and I value your perspective.

      From my point of view, this was a safety decision, and I trust the HUSAR guys to either have the experience to make the evaluation, or to have consulted people who do. Unlike you I don’t have the information to evaluate their experience, so I don;t see the point in second guessing them.

      What I see is a badly worded press conference when the HUSAR team was to hand over control of the site to a higher authority. As I am listening to the radio now, I can quote Bill Needles:

      “Our authority did end when the building was deemed unsafe by the engineers”

      Like I said, I am more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt; no rescuer would sit in front of a room of people and tell them they are giving up unless there was a good reason.

  5. Michael,

    I agree with Joan and AC.

    I watched the press conference @5pm on Monday where it was announced that the search was off. Bill Neadles did most of the talking. He seemed to be the one in charge.

    He went on at length at how the next step was to abandon the site and have a demolition crew come in to clean up. He said: “don’t worry, the crew would be careful with the bodies.” (paraphrasing)

    He was NOT reading from a press release.

    It was totally shocking that they would give up only about 6 hours after they announced that a live person was detected.

    I am NOT suggesting that they should have gone back into the building. But at least call for extra help if you feel you have run out of options. Don’t call a press conference to tell the world you have given up.

    If Bill Neadles felt he had run out of options then he shouldn’t have gone public, he should have phoned the premier himself.

    • JK: I would submit that what they are doing today and tomorrow is indeed exactly what Bill Neadles said was going to happen. They are bringing in the heavy equipment and demolishing the structure slowly, and looking for bodies. HUSAR is not necessarily qualified for this sort of work, and neither is it their responsibility. Thus the rescue phase is over.

      However, politicians have had an opportunity to step in and appear to reverse the course of things — retaining HUSAR on scene and putting on a show of continuing the rescue effort.

      Given the engineers statements about how unstable the building is, as soon as they start shifting things it will collapse.

      I didn’t mean to imply he was reading from a press release; my point was that he did a bad job of explaining what was going to happen, and what was possible.

      I’d also like to point out that time has nothing to do with the stability of the structure, so whether it was 6 hours or 6 days it’s the same thing: if they say it’s too dangerous, remembering that these are trained professionals who want to rescue people with every bone in their bodies, then it’s too dangerous.

      • Michael,

        Update since my last posting …

        So last night they brought in the big equipment, cut a hole in the side of the building and hauled out the escalators which were so unstable.

        The building did NOT collapse as you said it would.

        This morning HUSAR has gone in and pulled out two bodies. Now they are sweeping the rest of the area, looking for any others. The sweep should be done in “a few hours”.

        Back to Monday….

        On Monday @ 5pm Bill Neadles announced that authority was being passed back to the locals and the mall owner would have to hire a demo company to retrieve the bodies, under the guidance of the province.

        Today he is backtracking on his statements saying that they never gave up, and they were just “regrouping”.

        If they were really regrouping, then the guy is in need of some serious PR training. At the press conference (which I watched), to me the message was very clear: they were giving up. I wasn’t alone in my understanding, many others took away the same message.

        If they were ready to pack their bags, then the guy should be fired since only 6 hours earlier he announced they found a live body. I am not suggesting that they should have entered the unsafe area (which you keep going on about). I am suggesting that he should have picked up the phone and asked for help and he should have said clearly at the press conference that they had a problem and they were working on finding a solution.

        You keep bringing up that these people are trained professionals. Well, they are capable of making mistakes, just like anyone else. And they need to learn from these experiences, to make the next time better.


        • JK I value your input, but in this case I believe that there is vast gulf between what appears to be happening and what actually happened.

          My only concern is the appearance that the HUSAR team made a safety decision, and that it was overruled by politicians.

          I do not believe that this is what actually happened. I suspect that what we are watching is what would have happened regardless — the HUSAR team stood back from the rescue phase of the operation, and other agencies have stepped in and are funding the partial demolition of the building and extraction of the bodies.

          I, like you, am just an observer.

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