Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crisis-response teams' future dim

Vancouver fire chief tries to save program

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VANCOUVER -- When a massive landslide engulfed homes in the quiet hamlet of Johnson's Landing in British Columbia last summer, a specially trained integrated emergency task force was among the first to respond.

Now that same team must be saved, Vancouver's fire chief said, or Canada's national and international response to crises could be seriously crippled.

Fire Chief John McKearney met with federal safety officials last week, asking the government for $1.6 million to keep the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue program afloat for the next three years.

"(It's) a last-ditch effort to salvage this national program," McKearney said in an interview, adding the funds would be spread between teams in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.

Funding for the existing rescue crew runs out at the end of April, McKearney said, and could mean the team won't be able to respond to national or international disasters.

"It's a huge concern," he said. "We're not just a heavy-lift team or a structural-collapse team. It's really an all-hazards approach."

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced federal funding for the program would be cancelled after the 2012 fiscal year as part of the Conservative government's effort to reduce the deficit. But McKearney said the government didn't fully grasp the consequences.

Currently able to operate self-sufficiently for up to 10 days, the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team would have to rely on host communities for lodging, food, transportation and supplies if funding is cut -- something local municipalities aren't always equipped to do in major catastrophes.

The integrated task force is currently made up of medics, firefighters, engineers and search and rescue crews. It co-ordinates efforts of emergency responders across four provinces in the event of major floods, landslides, earthquakes, building collapses or other disasters.

Their training is unique, McKearney said. Team members have the know-how to save people trapped in confined spaces, tunnels and mounds of rubble. "We have the ability to produce 30,000 litres of fresh water a day from swamp water -- all these things that really mitigate most of the disasters," he said.

What makes the service so crucial, however, is the way four heavy urban teams collaborate across provincial borders and lend their specialized skills to already established police, fire and emergency departments in the areas they serve.

"If we have something major... we can rely on, talk the same language and (have) the same position and same equipment as the three other heavy teams," McKearney said.

It's taken years to establish standardization of skill sets across the provinces, the fire chief said, and Canada risks forfeiting that "plug-and-play approach" if they're unable to continue annual training and collaboration.

"That truly will be lost -- that really is the sad part about it," he said. "We would be moving from about a $3-million cache... down to a $1-million cache of equipment. Our team size would move from just over 125 staff to just under 100."

Public Safety Canada issued an email statement in response to questions from The Canadian Press regarding future funding for the program.

"Most emergencies are local in nature and are managed by municipalities or at the provincial or territorial level," said Jean Paul Duval, the ministry's media spokesman.

Duval said the elimination of urban search and rescue funding reflects the substantial increase in local emergency preparedness and response capacity over the years.

McKearney said he's optimistic after "very positive" meetings with Gary Donovan, executive director of the National Emergency Preparedness Directorate, but he's still waiting for his phone to ring with news.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2013 A11

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