Second-guessing from a safe distance

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Wednesday night on the national news, Toronto Police Staff Insp. Bill Neadles got a particular roasting.

Neadles was in charge of Toronto’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team, which was sent to Elliot Lake, Ont., after a shopping mall parking garage collapsed through the roof of the mall, killing two people, and he was a witness at an inquiry into that collapse.

Neadles was on the hot seat over the way he handled that rescue operation, and I’m sorry — to me, it looked like a lovely little scapegoat hunt by a bunch of people, from news media to inquiry lawyers, in the privileged position of being able to second-guess decisions after the fact and gleefully point fingers without ever having to get their hands dirty.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that rescue and fire workers shouldn’t be questioned on what went right or wrong in a rescue situation, because that’s already happening, every single day. Unlike most people’s jobs, rescue workers regularly debrief and go over scenes, looking for ways to do things better.

There were clear questions that need to be answered: was Neadles in charge of a full crew, were they adequately trained and equipped, did Neadles have access to the resources required to deal with that sort of heavy rescue?

But the debate about Neadles’ role has also circled around one major decision: his decision to pull rescue crews from a critically unstable building and stop the rescue.

Neadles made a difficult calculation: two people were known to be inside, and, although the collapse hardly seemed survivable, there were inconclusive signs that one of them might still be alive. The building, however, was a mess: impossible-to-stabilize shifting slabs of concrete were still on the move.

In fact, his head of rescue operations told him that further collapse of the Algo Centre Mall was imminent.

Blasted for his decision

Neadles pulled his people out, and met instant outrage, all the way to the premier of the day, Dalton McGuinty, who asked him to reconsider and send the workers back in. (Always helpful to have a politician comfortably far from the reality of the scene suggesting that someone else be sent into danger.)

As it turned out, post-mortems on the two victims indicated they probably died soon after the collapse — Neadles pulled the crews two days after the roof fell in.

I’m not sure why the decision to pull the crew is so critical; it’s not the kind of decision that’s done lightly.

No rescue worker goes to a call thinking about how quickly they want to quit and go home. On the other hand, you count on your scene commander to haul you out when the scene is too dangerous.

I’ve done it — when I was in the fire service, I ordered people out of buildings and, as a firefighter, I was ordered out myself.

It’s a tough experience on both sides.

But sometimes the only decision you can make is to pull rescue personnel out of dangerous situations. That kind of decision is made regularly. It was made in St. John’s in a recent fire on Duckworth Street, when the fireground commander pulled his crews out of a three-building fire at the foot of Bates Hill and chose to fight the fires from the outside. The fireground commander weighed the combination of the safety of firefighters and the fact that no one was believed to be inside the buildings, and made a decision.

One thing that’s for certain about rescue scenes: the worst possible decision you can make is to make no decision at all. If you spend time tormented by doubt, all you will really do is lose that time. And you lose it forever.

If we hire, train and equip people properly and expect them to make tough decisions in emotionally charged situations, then we also have to let them make those decisions.

Hanging them out to dry afterwards serves nothing but to destroy their confidence, and make it harder for others in similar situations to make the right decisions.

Think Bill Neadles hasn’t gone over that mall collapse 40,000 times in his head every day since and thought of things he might have done differently?

If you think he hasn’t, you’re lucky enough to never have had to make that kind of tough decision and have it battering around inside your head for the rest of your life.

Neadles is no doubt a big boy; he wouldn’t be in the job if he wasn’t. But you have to stop and think that the way he’s been worked over will prey on the mind of any scene commander who has to make the tough decision to abandon a search for safety reasons — and it may just end up costing rescue workers their lives.

Save the political and legal theatre for some safe little place where it doesn’t matter.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Algo Centre Mall

Geographic location: Toronto, Elliot Lake, Duckworth Street Bates Hill

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  • Alexis
    September 14, 2013 - 07:39

    Wonderful column. That stuff needed to be said. As an aside, I will add the following: As a person from the mainland, I have NO problem whatsoever with the Russell writing about stuff that goes on there. But just imagine what the reaction of Newfoundlanders would be if it was the other way around - i.e. if an Elliot Lake type of fiasco happened here, and a mainland newspaper published an editorial criticizing how it had been handled. Doh!