Elliot Lake chief says operation was textbook

Elliot Lake chief says operation was textbook - Toronto – The Ministry of Labour cannot stop a rescue operation due to safety concerns because firefighters are exempt from Occupational Health and Safety regulations under certain circumstances, the inquiry into the collapse of the Algo Centre mall heard on Friday.

Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer clarified under questioning by John Saunders, the lawyer for the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, that the Fire Protection and Prevention Act exempts workers doing fire suppression and rescue from the OH&S regulations. 

Further, Saunders said, as long as a fire department is conducting a rescue, it would have control over the incident.

Officer agreed, but said clarification on the role of the Ministry of Labour (MOL) for everyone at the collapse scene would have been helpful. 

“. . . know what your authority is,” Officer said, “so it doesn't delay things when you are actually in an emergency situation.”

There had been confusion during the operation among some on-scene agencies and personnel about whether the ministry had ordered workers to stop looking for victims, and at what point the ministry has the authority to do so. The inquiry has heard repeatedly that the MOL can order a work stoppage in a recovery operation, but not during a rescue. 

Officer said during Friday’s cross-examination – he had given his main testimony earlier – that members of the Elliot Lake Fire Department are trained to the awareness level in building collapse but that council sets the level of service, and it would be too expensive for the municipality to have a heavy urban search and rescue team.

“We have to target and focus on our main concerns which is fire and, again, like I said, it's hard to ask council to support something  that we have no call volume for.” 

Officer was asked by Saunders about an OPP helicopter that firefighters testified earlier had caused vibrations inside the mall as it flew over the scene so an OPP officer could take aerial photos and video.

Officer said he did not order the helicopter and did not know it was coming. Officer also said he had not seen any of the OPP photos taken from the helicopter and testified later Friday the he also did not see Algo Centre security videos that had been seized by the OPP. The videos would have helped to determine how many people were trapped in the collapse zone, Officer said. 

In addition, Officer said, he had no way to communicate with the helicopter because the agencies’ radios are not compatible. The lack of interoperability among responding agencies has been raised several times during the rescue phase of the inquiry and has been noted by Commissioner Paul Belanger as a likely area for recommendations.

Officer said that he had constant contact with HUSAR leader Bill Neadles, who commanded the rescue sector – Officer was the overall incident commander – and that Neadles mostly remained in the command tent and communicated with his team members from there. He said neither the OPP nor its rescue team, known as UCRT, had a representative in the command tent, which made communication difficult.

Officer said he understood that the UCRT team would “roll in” to the HUSAR team for command purposes, but that wasn’t the case. 

“. . .  this is nothing against the UCRT, and I understand their concerns,” Officer said. “The OPP are very much take charge, take charge, take charge, that's basically their mantra and I understand that, in their job.

“My concern is . . . that I do not need two rescue experts coming to me as the incident commander and giving me advice from two separate people, because if I get two separate opinions, I don't have the expertise that they have. I need one . . . 

“I think where the confusion there is – they were really working at a task level and wanted to . . . have their person in the command, and that's the way they work, they like to have control, and I think that's where their confusion was leading to, that they weren't necessarily knowing what decisions were being made on how to proceed  . . . ”

Officer noted that there was no confusion among rescuers during the incident – only at the command level because of communication problems. He had said earlier that the two teams performed their tasks well together. 

Saunders asked Officer if it’s possible to have effective command without effective communication.

“If there is no communication, there is no command – is that fair to say? If you can't communicate to people, you can't command them?” 

“That's right,” Officer said.

“And if you can't communicate, you can't control them? 

“Correct.”

“And then if you can't communicate, you can't co-ordinate them. Is that true?” 

“That's right.”

“And if you can't communicate, you can't discipline people, in terms of having people working as a team together?” 

“Right.”

“So that creates a problem? 

“Yes.”

Saunders also questioned Officer about the arrival of the OPP’s UCRT team in Elliot Lake. Officer testified that he did not request the team, did not know it existed or its mandate, and was not aware that it had been called in until Const. Ryan Cox arrived in Elliot Lake at about 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 23, 2012. Officer had personally requested Toronto’s HUSAR team but didn’t know at the time who had asked for the UCRT team. 

Officer said UCRT members kept arriving on scene and introducing themselves to him, which he found distracting.

“And in an ideal world,” Saunders said, “I take it the OPP would have an individual that was in control of them and they would be reporting to that individual, and you and that individual would then be liaising so you would only have one person that you would have to deal with?" 

“That's correct,” Officer said.

“And that,” Saunders asked, “would be the theory of incident command?”

“Unified command,” Officer clarified. 

“Unified command?,” Saunders confirmed.

“Yes.” 

Later, Saunders walked Officer through his actions after he received the call about the collapse on the afternoon of Saturday, June 23, 2012, from his response to the scene to calls for mutual aid, and to his Office of the Fire Marshal adviser and others.

“This was a textbook case of how to do this, was it not?” Saunders asked. 

“I’ve been told it is, yes.”

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