Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Elliott Lake: When Search and Rescue Doesn't Meet Our Expectations

The situation is the least desirable situation one can imagine. There are approximately 30 people unaccounted for within the collapsed shopping mall, and Search and rescue people are walking away. The crowd and population are livid; how can they leave a survivor (for there have been indications there is at least one individual still alive within this unintentional tomb) and tell the world they are quitting? Protests start, politicians go on the verbal offensive, while ministry directors make decisions about what should and should not be. Everyone has a voice, and everyone demands their voice be the one heeded. The worst of situations.

Sunday saw a tragedy unfold right in our own back yard. Normally, Ontarians think of collapses such as this occurring during severe winter weather and severe storm (read tornado) events, or in second and third world nations where building code isn't strong enough or not enforced. Yet, it happened in Ontario. In a community known as a retirement haven not long ago. And to add insult to the situation, rescuers wont rescue.

So far, it may seem like the blog here is going to bash the search and rescue community, for not having the courage to do what is necessary to save a life, or potentially, lives. If that is your assumption Dear Reader, you assume wrong.

The very last thing ANY responder wants to do is leave a victim and or survivor behind. These brave souls are good at what they do... no, great at what they do because their first instinct is to save a life; to rescue those in need of rescuing come hell or high water. They are sworn to do what they can to save save lives. And on a daily basis, that is what our EMTs, Fire Services, Police Services and Special Teams such as Search and Rescue (SAR) and Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) personnel do. It isn't just a job, it is their calling and passion. So imagine how they must feel stepping back.

How can they step back? Sometimes its the only call that can be made. Is it responsible to place 2, 3, 5 or 10 rescuers lives in jeopardy in order to pull someone from the wreckage who may not live? If the person in that same wreckage is a loved one, just about every Canadian would say yes. And that is their emotion, connection, love and need for that loved one speaking. And its not wrong. But its also not right.

A very wise EMT/Paramedic I know, who trained me in Standard First Aid/HeartSaver CPR said something to us during training that needs repeating now: "At the end of the day, the rescuer goes home". Sounds a bit selfish doesn't it? But it is the furthest thing from selfish. Because at the end of the day, there is going be someone else, somewhere and sometime who is going to need that rescuer to help them. If a rescuer is lost, that soul can't help anyone. When a rescuer is lost, immediately his or her comrades feel the need to find him/her, and pull them to safety, jeopardizing more of the team (if left to their instincts). It spirals from there. So stepping away is, without doubt in my mind, the hardest action these brave souls must take. I imagine it kills a piece of them each time they have to make it.

Consider, if you will Dear Reader, the loss of a rescuer or rescuers for one potential survivor, only to have all lost permanently. Do we then attack citing faulty training? Faulty reasoning? What do we say to THEIR families? Do we shrug it off and say, "Well, that's their job! And they screwed it up because our loved one is still in there too!" DAMN RIGHT WE DON'T!

We are not there. And most of you good Readers are not versed in their trade and skill. You haven't the years of training and experience they do. I understand more than many of you due to my training, education and experience in Emergency Management, but even I am not qualified to criticize their judgement. And at the risk of sounding judgemental/critical/confrontational to the politicians and Ministry Officials, neither do they. The only people truly fit to make the call are those with the training and experience. In the case of the Elliott Lake shopping mall, that means HUSAR personnel. And we need to leave them to their task as they deem fit.

Its hard for us to understand, but sometimes the fastest and safest way for HUSAR/SAR to do their job is to stop, pull back even walk away and rethink the task out. They need to re-evaluate, revise plans, regroup then and only then resume operations. And sometimes, that means walking away for good.

My heart goes out to all those trapped in the wreckage of the mall. It goes out to their families, to their friends, their coworkers. And it goes out to the reponders; EMTs, firefighters, police the SAR and HUSAR teams especially. They have the hardest decisions to make; life and death decisions, and very often they are the most unpopular and undesirable decisions. Decisions they absolutely find repulsive to make. And even if only necessary to make once throughout an entire career, too often necessary.

Share this Blog if you will Dear Reader, in support of the responders in our communities. Theirs is the hardest job of any to do, and the most necessary.

To all our EMTs, Fire Fighters, Police, SAR and HUSAR Teams and all other Emergency Responders;
Thank you in the most heart felt ways, for the sacrifices you make each and every day! We owe you a debt that can never be repaid!

Greg Long, President
TEN33 Inc. Disaster Preparedness Consulting


  1. Greg, thanks for this article. I had the same response. Waking on the west coast this morning to find the mayor, MPP, permier and prime minister all getting involved in this incident made me very angry. I can understand the people who have loved ones buried not being happy with the decision, but the politicians attempting or appearing to override a safety decision makes me very angry.

    I tried in my limited way to make a similar point this morning, but being angry I think it might have come off as a rant.


  2. As a retired police officer, I know all too well the dilemma of having to make decisions such as these. These decisions are made for the greater good, and they are NEVER made lightly.

    As a supervisor and past instructor at the Community College level, I always told those whom I was mentoring that, despite your "ability", "desire" and "power" to rush towards or into things, you are no good to anyone if you do not arrive safely. The same premise can be applied here, as you so well point out, Greg.

    The same is true of our troops who have served overseas, in battle. There comes a time when, despite your love for another, be they a co-worker, friend or complete stranger, that for the greater good of the mission, you must move on. A wounded soldier is encouraged to treat him or herself, and not rely on the efforts of another, as for the other to become a casualty as well exponentially stifles the mission.

    These are the hardest decisions to make...but yet, from time-to-time, the most absolutely necessary.

    God Bless everyone in Elliot Lake, in any way associated with this tragedy.