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Elite Toronto volunteer team leads rescue effort in mall collapse

A member of Toronto's Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team walks his rescue dog outside the Aglo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont. on Tuesday.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

He's the man who has been answering all the tough questions.

Staff Inspector Bill Neadles is the leader of Toronto's Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) team sent to Elliot Lake. It's an all-volunteer team of firefighters, paramedics and police officers that is world renowned for its wealth of expertise in extracting people trapped inside collapsed structures – HUSAR teams had a role in the 9/11 rescue effort.

Toronto's HUSAR is one of five such units in Canada. The others are based in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Halifax, all under the umbrella of Public Safety Canada.

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When the desperate call for help went out from Elliot Lake late Saturday afternoon, Toronto's HUSAR team dropped what they were doing, assembled and flew out of Toronto at around 9 p.m.

When he's not volunteering, Staff Inspector Neadles heads the Toronto police force's Public Safety Unit, which deals with cases that range from missing persons to terrorist threats. He's described as a world leader in his field by colleagues on the Toronto force.

He's also in charge of the investigation into the other tragic structural collapse of the summer – the stage at Downsview Park's Radiohead concert.

HUSAR teams know hope is usually measured in hours rather than days. The two key elements in a rescue mission such as the one at Elliot Lake are specially trained dogs and electronic search equipment, both deployed to sniff out and detect signs of life.

What's also called for is skill in removing debris, lifting heavy structural components with construction equipment and speedily treating and expediting the removal of survivors.

The HUSAR team at the scene comprises 37 members and a structural engineer.

And always the rescuers are battling the clock. Five days after an earthquake, or other disaster that has trapped someone under wreckage, their chances of surviving has shrunk to 7 per cent, the most critical factor being whether the person has access to water, which is far more crucial than food.

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But there can be many variables. After the January, 2010, earthquake in sweltering Haiti, one survivor was pulled out after more than seven days.

"What we're looking at are things like is a person bleeding, are they conscious?" said Staff-Sergeant Jim Bock, unit commander of the Ontario Provincial Police urban search-and-rescue team, which is also aiding the effort in Elliot Lake. "Is a heavy piece of concrete on them? Do they have any air?"

Also at the site of the collapsed mall are 10 members and two medics attached to the OPP team. On standby are personnel with Manitoba's HUSAR team.

Although the HUSAR units ultimately report to the federal government, which picks up most of the cost, the response to emergencies is co-ordinated with provincial and local authorities under the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program, set up in 1980.

But when crisis strikes, the chain of command is provincial, and in this instance authority rests with the province's Emergency Management Ontario.

EMO keeps closely attuned to advice and insight from those on the ground.

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"Keep in mind, the office of emergency management brought them in for their expertise," Toronto district fire chief Stephan Powell said.

"They look at the scene, they come up with a plan and they ask for permission to enact that plan."

and Matthew Robinson

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About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

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