It always seems eerie to me when I’m attending a conference and the subject of the event is playing out in real life, somewhere else. I can remember participating in a police media relations course at the University of Louisville when a train, rolling through the Kentucky countryside, suddenly derailed dumping some of its hazardous cargo into an adjacent river. Our class came to life as we monitored every aspect of the crisis and the reassuring way a capable state police officer managed hourly news briefings.
Such was the case at the recent World Conference on Disaster Management (WCDM). Many delegates and exhibitors were looking forward to an update on federal government cutbacks in emergency management. Unfortunately, that issue was overshadowed by the news that a mall, in Elliot Lake, Ontario, had collapsed, prompting a call for a Toronto-based HUSAR (Heavy Urban Search and Rescue) team to be dispatched to search for trapped survivors.
As the conference opened, without those delegates who had been summoned to Elliot Lake, there was great anticipation regarding the deployment of the HUSAR team and a real possibility that some people could be rescued. This excitement soon turned to dismay when it was learned that engineers had deemed the site too dangerous for rescuers to do their work. All activity came to a halt, prompting a quick response from area citizens.
Elliot Lake is a mining town. There is an established tradition of never abandoning anyone trapped below the surface of the earth. Tempers flared while emergency managers considered options. As public interest, and pressure increased, the Premier of Ontario called on the response team to keep on trying to find a way to complete their task in good time.
Meanwhile, back in Toronto at WCDM, the crisis was discussed and debated in the exhibit hall, the dining lounge and at the coffee kiosk. Was it right for the emergency workers to suspend their work on the advice of the engineers? Were the correct decisions being made? Should more effective equipment have been deployed at the earliest stages of the disaster?
Some columnists became vicious: Were these emergency workers cowards? One writer pointed out that our soldiers didn’t stop advancing at Normandy, on D-Day, because the mission was dangerous. If these people were not willing to do their jobs, he asked, should they be sent home so that more dedicated people could take over and complete the task?
Eventually, heavy equipment was obtained and a way was found to render the site safe enough for entry and recovery of two victims whose lives could not be saved. Even though there were expressions of gratitude for the work that was done, there were lingering questions about the way in which the crisis was handled by the Province of Ontario and its various partners. The Premier of Ontario has announced that a public inquiry into all aspects of the disaster will be forthcoming. The Ontario Provincial Police are currently conducting a criminal investigation into the events leading up to the mishap. WCDM delegates, and emergency managers across Canada, continue to discuss and debate many of the factors that contributed to the crisis behind the crisis.
I have already made my commitment to attend WCDM 2013. I am assuming that many of the questions about the Elliot Lake incident will remain unanswered due to the time required for modern investigations and inquiries. There is much to be learned from that sad week in Elliot Lake and I’m sure it will remain on the informal agenda for the next conference.
I won’t forget what I witnessed as this sad crisis unfolded, but I will be watching to see what happens to the government’s future commitments to emergency readiness and response. Our ability to manage future disasters may well depend on decisions made in response to that one, unhappy week.