Funding is needed for HUSAR — before disaster strikes

TIME FOR PRIME MINISTERIAL HOPEFULLS TO STEP UP AND ACKNOWLEDGE IT IN THEIR PLATFORMS

By Steve Daly

Members of Canada Task Force 2 (CAN TF2) pose for a photo-op during training. CAN TF2 was deployed in June 2013, by the Province of Alberta during the Calgary flood. They provided 64 members over 14 days to provide evacuation, rescue, and recovery to 100,000 citizens affected by the flood. (Cantf2.com)

Members of Canada Task Force 2 (CAN TF2) pose for a photo-op during training. CAN TF2 was deployed in June 2013, by the Province of Alberta during the Calgary flood. They provided 64 members over 14 days to provide evacuation, rescue, and recovery to 100,000 citizens affected by the flood. (Cantf2.com)

Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) is a subject many Canadians are familiar with, but only from watching coverage of national or international catastrophes. We see the specialists — their bright coveralls stand out in stark contrast to the dust, rubble and mud — engaged in the desperate race to save lives at home and abroad. It is these people, volunteers for the daunting duty, who risk themselves so that others may live. It is a vital service in short supply in Canada.

There are only four certified teams serving the entire country (CAN TF1 in Vancouver, CAN TF2 in Calgary, CAN TF3 in Toronto and CAN TF4 in Manitoba). A fifth team in Halifax (CAN TF5) did exist, but now the Public Safety Canada website no longer lists this team as active.

Specialist work this certainly is; an examination of Public Safety Canada’s requirements for HUSAR teams shows a daunting list of skills, including advanced life support (cardiac and trauma), engineering (with demolition experience), communications, public relations, logistics and CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) response. These are highly skilled individuals, chronically in short supply.

The specialist tool lists are equally impressive. HUSAR teams have to be able to ‘live out of their own resources’ and all tools required must be in inventory. They also require vehicles suitable for mobility and rescue operations, communication systems for deployed operations, a full base camp (including a field kitchen, water purification and hygiene requirements) and even decontamination facilities for CBRN incidents. Such capabilities are far from inexpensive. This, in part, is why the teams are concentrated in major centres.

A HUSAR team’s responsibilities require them to be deployable across Canada and be operational for at least 10 days (with proper logistical support). They can also be deployed further afield as the situation requires; the United Nations has certified Vancouver’s HUSAR team for worldwide response. As such, CAN TF1 was an important part of Canada’s response to New Orleans in the aftermath of 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina.

Canada's HUSAR teams are not alone in disaster response. Medium and light urban SAR teams are not uncommon, with many local fire departments able to field at least a light team at any time required.

The Canadian Armed Forces are major participants in disaster response as well. The CAF’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) is currently deployed to Nepal to aid that country in the wake of the devastating April 25 earthquake that had a magnitude of 7.8.

DART is a HUSAR team writ large, with capacities that only a full-scale military unit can bring to bear. Historically, one of DART’s greatest contributions has been clean drinking water. The reverse-osmotic filters used can produce potable water in impressive quantities, and out of very poor-quality feed. Potable water is a critical supply in the aftermath of any disaster.

In fact, all members of the CAF are expected to aid in disaster response. Whether it is specialist capabilities or skill sets, or simply strong backs and a willingness to help others, Canada can be proud of the disaster response of our Armed Forces. They have proven, repeatedly, both at home and abroad, that they will fight to restore hope to shattered communities. In many domestic emergencies, members of the CAF will take guidance from a civilian HUSAR team, providing willing muscle under specialist guidance.

Where there must be less pride is in the funding of HUSAR. Despite the national scope of responsibilities, national funding has been lost. Public Safety Canada has downloaded ongoing support for the teams onto the communities and provinces where they are based.

To be sure, most HUSAR taskings will be local, but not all. Elliot Lake and the Calgary flood taught us that regional requirements cannot be ignored. Oklahoma City and 9/11 taught us too that not all disasters are naturally occurring — where terrorists have the means, they will commit atrocities. HUSAR teams are expected to respond to all, and they should not also be expected to pick up the cheque.

The current Conservative government has written a national narrative of “justice and security.” There is no justice in leaving the burden of maintaining HUSAR to local governments. Nor is security served, should a team find itself starved for needed resources. Narrative and numbers find themselves at odds.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a prime ministerial hopeful, announced on April 27 that his government would restore HUSAR funding if elected. The commitment is both welcome and appropriate. Mr. Trudeau is to be lauded that this issue arises so early in his party’s platform. Attention to detail and seeing to the needs of the nation are required characteristics of one who wishes to reside at 24 Sussex.

This leaves the ball in Prime Minister Harper’s court. The scissors of fiscal prudence have obviously trimmed too far. HUSAR funding was never a multi-billion dollar cost, and real savings are achieved. Mr. Harper now faces a simple choice.

Justin Trudeau is on the outside acting prime ministerial. Stephen Harper is on the inside, and can be prime ministerial. He can do this by restoring HUSAR funding.