Heavy urban search and rescue teams face budget cuts

A federal government cut is expected to hit the Toronto Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team leading efforts at a collapsed mall in Elliot Lake, Ont.

Federal government cutting program that helps fund teams

Public Safety Canada plans to cut the program that helps fund search and rescue teams like the one leading the effort at the collapsed Elliot Lake mall. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

A federal government cut is expected to hit the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team leading efforts at a collapsed mall in Elliot Lake, Ont.

Urban search and rescue units across the country are facing smaller budgets as part of federal efforts to cut costs.

A federal government memo posted to the website of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs in April says Public Safety Canada is going to cut the program that helps fund the search and rescue teams.

"Federal contributions for emergency preparedness projects under [the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program] will end in 2013 as will federal funding provided under JEPP for urban search and rescue and for critical infrastructure initiatives," Gina Wilson, assistant deputy minister of regional operations at Public Safety Canada, wrote in the memo.

Funding still exists for projects submitted for consideration in 2012-13, Wilson noted in the memo.

The government spent almost $6.5 million a year on the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program, with $2.1 million going to the urban rescue teams.

A spending estimate tabled in Parliament earlier this year said the program would continue until March 2015.

Teams likely to disband

CBC News reported in April on how the cut will hit the team in Vancouver. The other teams are in Calgary, Brandon, Man., Toronto and Halifax.

Staff Insp. Bill Neadles from the Toronto Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team, which is currently in Elliot Lake, says the program is run jointly between the federal and provincial governments and the City of Toronto.

"It's something that's been a long time coming and is still in its infancy, if one wants to compare the programs to the United States," he said at a news conference Tuesday.

"As far as our mandate in enhancing it, I've already had a couple conversations quickly with a couple of the politically seated people in the room and some of those discussions will continue after this event concludes."

Sean Tracey, chairman of the board of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness and one of the people who developed the Canadian standards for heavy urban search and rescue, says the cut could mean the end of the rescue teams.

Public Safety Canada provides about one-third of the funding for the teams, Tracey said, and the cut will have a dramatic effect on Toronto's ability to sustain its team.

"After April 2013, we will probably not have even these teams and capabilities," he said.

"If this had happened a year from now, there would be nobody who would be able to respond to an incident such as this [the Elliot Lake roof collapse] inside Canada, anywhere," Tracey added

"I think you'll find that these teams … will disband, unless there’s a change to the funding to support these teams."

No military assistance yet

Officials have decided not to send in the military to assist with the search of the collapsed mall in Elliot Lake.

A federal official told CBC News that the province can handle the search without the military.

"We are told that Ontario currently has the capacity to manage this situation and does not require [Canadian Forces] assets/assistance at this time. Should a request be received, we stand ready to assist," the federal official told CBC News.

The procedure for bringing in the military starts with a request by the premier.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty on Tuesday requested assistance from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The prime minister gets more information from the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces about whether they have any unique capability that the province doesn't have or isn't readily available from the private sector.

That could include situations where, for example, large numbers of people are needed to sandbag an area before a major flood, or to evacuate communities. Another example would be a need for moving equipment quickly, such as an airlift into a remote area.

The Canadian Forces aren't sent if provincial or private sector personnel, equipment or expertise are available.

In the case of Elliot Lake, with no order to send in the military, DND likely responded that it doesn't have any unique capabilities to assist.

That message would have been relayed to Public Safety Canada, which handles emergencies within the country.