OTTAWA — The Harper government was warned cutting federal funding would likely cripple rescue teams like the one working at a caved-in mall in the northern Ontario city of Elliot Lake.
Public Safety Canada evaluated the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue units five years ago and found that without funding from Ottawa, there was a risk that some or all of the teams would not survive.
“There is a need for the federal government to continue contributions to build capacity and capability for teams focused on Heavy Urban Search and Rescue,” the report found.
A Heavy Urban Search and Rescue unit from Toronto is leading operations in Elliot Lake, where a mall roof collapsed Saturday afternoon, killing at least two people.
The September 2007 Public Safety report lauded the search-and-rescue teams as a “national resource,” and said there was a need for the federal government to keep funding them.
“The HUSAR Teams have a need for ongoing operating and maintenance funding to ensure sustainability. Without such funding there is a risk that some or all of the HUSAR Teams will not survive,” it warned.
“The provinces with exceptions (notably Manitoba) have not offered funding resources to maintain what is perceived to be a federal government initiative. Regional-municipalities claim not to have sufficient budget to maintain a nationally deployable HUSAR capability and capacity that has largely been built using federal funds.”
Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team leaders stressed the need for federal funding to Public Safety officials.
“Because they do not have adequate funds for ongoing operations and maintenance … the sustainability of their organizations is in jeopardy as is their ability to fulfil their missions in the long-term,” the report says.
“Their assertion is that continued development and future sustainability of HUSAR teams for co-ordinated national deployment is dependent upon contributions from the federal government. They want the federal government to provide funding to ensure the sustainability of the HUSAR teams.”
The lion’s share of funding for Canada’s five Heavy Urban Search and Rescue units comes from the federal Joint Emergency Preparedness Program. But the Conservatives quietly axed the program in the March budget.
A Public Safety official told the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs in April that federal funding for the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program will end next year.
“The original objectives of this program, namely, to enhance local emergency preparedness and response capacity, have been met,” the official wrote.
The units — based in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Halifax and Manitoba — received nearly $1.9 million in federal funding this fiscal year.
When federal funding ends next year, the teams will have received a combined total of $9.7 million since 2009, according to figures provided by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ office.
The minister’s spokeswoman defended the cuts to the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program, saying 90 per cent of emergencies in Canada are managed by municipalities or at the provincial or territorial level.
“Our government has supplemented provincial emergency preparedness by investing in equipment and training for urban search and rescue teams, firefighters, police and other first responders,” Julie Carmichael said in an email.
“Moving forward, our government is focused on delivering long-term disaster prevention funding to help provincial and territorial governments build infrastructure to protect against natural disasters.”
She did not answer a follow-up question about the 2007 evaluation of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue units.
Sean Tracey, the chair of the board for the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness, said the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue teams can’t go on without federal funding.
“In all likelihood, these teams will have to disband,” he said.
“These are expensive costs for municipalities of any size. And a building collapse, structure collapse, these are low-probability, high-severity issues, and a municipality just doesn’t have the funds to support these contingencies.
“And this is why we set up a national program and started looking at this 12 years ago, so the federal government would offset some of those costs and risks.”
Some have suggested the military as a replacement. But Tracey, a former military engineer who served in Haiti, dismissed that notion.
“We have no technical skills in the military for (heavy urban) search and rescue. We have no equipment, and the limited amount of equipment we have is not suited for this type of work,” he said.
In the case of Elliot Lake, Tracey said the military could only have dispatched a disaster assistance response team to provide drinking water, medical treatment, security and communications.
Ann Wyganowski, a Toronto-based consultant on disaster and emergency planning, said specialized search teams are expensive but important.
“(Rescue teams) are things that cost money,” she said. “Staff need to be maintained. All governments right now are tightening their belts. They’re trying to cut back on their spending and often, we see the police fighting back because they are being cut back too fast.”
Liberal Senator Colin Kenny wrote a scathing editorial in the Globe and Mail newspaper blasting the Conservatives for cutting the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program’s funding.
In an interview, Kenny said people tend to forget about the need for emergency preparedness programs until there’s a disaster like the one in Elliot Lake.
“This is one of the really pernicious things about this budget,” he said. “None of us really knows what the impact is going to be.”