Update on Elliot Lake

An update on my previous post on Elliot Lake, which seemed to hit a nerve.

I got hundreds of responses and feedback from various sources, broken into two groups; emergency responders, which largely agree that the political response was just that; political and not motivated by any concern for human life — either those trapped in the rubble, or those trying working on the rescue.

The other group seemed to be largely made up of members of the public with no knowledge of SAR, rescue or emergency response. These people have a heart of gold in that they, like me, want to see the people rescued from the rubble. Where we disagree is on second guessing the motives of the HUSAR team.

It appears that experts from around Canada and North America are in agreement that halting the rescue was the right thing to do.

To quote Wayne Boone, assistant professor at Carelton University and an expert in infrastructure management

The decision to go back and use those resources again was no longer an operational decision. The decision to go back again, my point would be it was a political decision, for other than purely emergency-management reasons.

The rescue team and other emergency responders have begun to tell the story, in detail, of how the rescue was carried out.

I have deep suspicions that what happening today is pretty much what was going to happen when this all started — the HUSAR team stood back and other agencies stepped up and partially demolished the building in order to extract the bodies. To quote from the CBC article

Neadles described step-by-step how a major piece of equipment with a robotic arm was aided by two secondary pieces of equipment to slowly carve a path into the mall and methodically tear down parts of the building.

He went on to say, as I expected, that the perception that they were “giving up” was not  what he had intended to convey;

These men are professional police officers, firefighters and emergency medical paramedics … that you thought we were going to pack up and go home. That was devastating, we would stay another four to five weeks if we had to.”

Politicians are doing their best to appear to have saved the day when in fact they are underfunding exactly this kind of disaster response.

To repeat — the problem I had with this situation was the appearance that a safety decision was being overruled by politicians. I don’t think this is what happened; I believe the whole thing was the result of some mis-communication at the Monday press conference.

In my opinion, the whole incident is a lesson in managing the media and proper public relations.

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6 Comments on “Update on Elliot Lake

  1. I agree this is a lesson in managing PR. With these types of disasters the politicians and public will be involved, no doubt.

    I feel Neadles brought this upon himself. The press conference he did on Monday @5pm was a disaster. A few hours later that night people on the street in Elliot Lake were practically ready to riot. Extra police were called in to keep the public from entering the site.

    I totally understand the public’s reaction. Early Monday they had a live body and a missing list of 30 people. And then Monday @5pm Neadles was telling the world they were done. (of course now he is back-tracking… but that’s besides the point)

    So…. some questions for you Michael…

    The CBC article you quote says:
    5 experts in disaster response agree: ‘You do not risk lives unless you can save lives’
    which I totally understand. That is not up for debate, in my opinion.

    I’m more interesting in learning about your opinion on bringing the equipment up from Toronto.

    Are you (and Wayne Boone) suggesting that calling in the heavy equipment from Toronto is all theatre to keep the public happy and win the politicians brownie points? I.e. Basically a waste of money?

    What about the live body on Monday and the 30 missing?
    How does that fit into your analysis?

    Wed morning makes 3.5 days since the accident, is there basically no hope of finding anyone alive after 3.5 days? And what if they did find someone alive today? Would that change your opinion of all this?

    I’m curious on your take on all this. Thanks.

    • JK,

      Regarding your questions, and bearing in mind that I’m not a HUSAR expert, I deliberately refrained from commenting on the equipment side of things.

      I have no idea what equipment would be appropriate for the demolition phase. I suspect that there would have been heavy equipment required of some sort so I do not think that’s part of the theatre, although describing it as a “Transformer” and hyping it’s capabilities seems to be over the top.

      At the moment I don’t think any money has been wasted, nor do I think any actions have been taken that would not have been taken in any case. I believe Mr Neadles mis-spoke on Monday and gave the impression they were giving up when in fact they were changing tactics from “rescue” to “recovery” given the instability of the structure and the impossibility of entering it safely. The tactics change basically means that other agencies were taking over primary operations on site. He did a very bad job of communicating this, leaving the impression they were packing up and going home.

      The change in tactics depends on rescuer safety, not on whether someone is or could be alive.

      As for the 30 missing, this was a product of media reports on the collapse and people reporting relatives missing before realizing where they were. I’m not close enough to the rescue to know whether this number was ever taken seriously, but from the earliest reports in the media I understood that there were 2 confirmed missing, and 20 “reported” missing.

      This tends to happen in disasters like this; and example was the avalanche at the “Big Iron Shootout” a few years back when hundreds of people were reported missing (not contained in the article, but gleaned from people who were first responders to this incident).

      • Thanks for your reply Michael.

        Everything you write makes sense, except… I don’t understand when you write about changing from “rescue” to “recovery”.

        So… If you don’t mind, I have some more questions.

        You write:
        they were changing tactics from “rescue” to “recovery” given the instability of the structure and the impossibility
        of entering it safely
        And:
        The change in tactics depends on rescuer safety, not on whether someone is or could be alive.

        What if the big machine was already in the Elliot Lake, taking about 2 hours to put into place (let’s say)? (instead of the about 24 hours it took to get it from Toronto)

        From what you write, you say it changed from “rescue” to “recovery” since they couldn’t enter the site safely.
        Yet, if this big machine was close by and they were able to use it quickly, then they would be able to enter safely.

        I guess I take issue with “impossibility”. In fact, they did enter the site safely today (early this morning). So it wasn’t impossible. They just needed the right machine on site.

        If one of the victims was in good shape and inside a void in the rubble, would they not be able to be rescued alive this morning?

        The way you write “demolition” and “recovery” instead of “rescue”, it sounds like you had given up on getting anyone out alive after the press conference on Monday @ 5pm. In another response you write “HUSAR is not necessarily qualified for this sort of work, and neither is it their responsibility”. Again, it sounds like you had given up on getting anyone out alive.

        When I read your posts I read, “dangerous” implies “recovery” implies “give up”. Why can’t “dangerous” change to “safe” (given the proper equipment) implying “rescue continues”?

        Thanks again. As a lay person, I am trying to understand your perspective.

        • JK: Now that the operation is over I’d like to let the rescuers speak for themselves. I’m listening to As It Happens on CBC right now and Bill Neadles is doing a very good job of explaining most of the the things you’re asking about, in fact he seems to be confirming most of the things I speculated on here.

  2. Hi Mike,
    I have been following this story and appreciate your perspective on the SAR issues. I have also been watching listening to this on various media outlets and am very surprised by the divergent coverage.

    In my opinion, the poor media relations have caused most of the public furor and negative perception of those working on site.

    While I believe it is good to review and look for ways to improve processes and procedures, this is not the manner it should be done. The only comparison I can come up with is, after the police shoot a knife wielding assailant. And people wonder why they couldn’t have shot them in the leg/arm.

    Would you say this is a case for having a trained media relations person handling the situation versus a front line worker?

    • Andrew; I agree completely on having a media relations person handling all media. This is standard practise for all companies and emergency services including the RCMP, local police, etc. Unfortunately HUSAR and most SAR teams in Canada are made up of volunteers and we spend 99% of the time training for our primary task, rescuing people.

      Here in BC when I am in charge of a task I try to get the RCMP to handle all media relations.

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