HUSAR Teams
DOUG SILVER and CAROL-LYNN CHAMBERS
© 2007 FrontLine Security (Vol 2, No 2)

Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) teams are multi-disciplinary in nature. Personnel and equipment used by these teams can be deployed locally, provincially, and across Canada to provide the specialized search and rescue to free and recover trapped victims.


Toronto HUSAR team members work to remove heavy debris and secure safe positions within a collapsed structure.

A wide variety of disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, storms and tornadoes, flood dam failures, technological accidents, terrorist activities and hazardous material (hazmat) releases can signal a HUSAR requirement.

Toronto’s HUSAR Team, also known as Canada “Task Force 3,” has undertaken additional preparations to become designated as a cold weather specialist team, unique to North America.  Funding for the team comes from the provincial Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), from Public Safety Canada, and from the City of Toronto.

The events of September 11, 2001 prompted the Province of Ontario, the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), and the municipal fire service to accelerate the development of a comprehensive strategy to be better prepared for the consequences of terrorist-related activities.

In 2002, the OFM established a comprehensive fire service based response system for the province. Provincial and municipal resources are available and deployable throughout Ontario to ­mitigate significant hazmat and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNE) emergencies. The system also provides response to emergencies requiring HUSAR capabilities.

The provincial-municipal partnership, established to create the system, is the most cost-effective way to deliver these vital services. The system seeks to ­pro­vide an appropriate response to emergencies to save lives, reduce loss to property and minimize pain and suffering. It is intended to provide an optimum level of service to all areas of the province and its 12,500,000 residents.

Partnership Works
Municipalities are the primary providers of service and the province supports them by providing a combination of transfer grants, equipment, training and central support. The municipal delivery teams provide enhanced services within their jurisdictions, mainly through the availability of equipment and training supplied to them as part of this partnership.

The partners in this system respond to changes, solve problems, collaborate on issues, assess provincial and municipal needs and identify the resources required to meet those needs. This system aims to provide better planning and a comprehensive and cost-effective emergency response service to the residents of Ontario.


OPP PERT Team members test their skills breaching a wall with the concrete-cutting Stanley chainsaw. This tool is able to cut into concrete and block walls with precision.

What is HUSAR?
The Department of Public Safety defines HUSAR as: “the location of trapped persons in collapsed structures using dogs and sophisticated search equipment; the use of heavy equipment such as cranes to remove debris; the work to breach, shore, remove and lift structural components; treatment and removal of victims; and the securing of partially or completely ­collapsed structures.”

The department has prepared a Canadian Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Classification Guide to fulfill the need to list the continuum of USAR capacities in Canada. The premise of the classification system is that USAR is a composite of a myriad of technical rescue capabilities, from light USAR (carried out with few technical resources), to heavy USAR, (multi-disciplinary teams that integrate large amounts of technical equipment and diverse professional skills in demanding rescue scenarios).

In recent years, five core national teams were identified and developed to form a successful Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) response capability. HUSAR teams exist in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Halifax, and the Province of Manitoba. These teams were developed and designed to deploy on a nation-wide basis to provide surge capacity assistance to provinces, territories and/or municipalities upon request.  

Why is HUSAR important?
Throughout the world, large-scale events caused by emergencies or disasters are on the rise. Invariably, these events require specialized expertise and equipment not readily available locally. Additionally, local resources tend to become quickly overwhelmed and require external support. Canada is not immune to these types of disasters and must be prepared to respond to these situations.

International experience with earthquakes demonstrates that the rate of survival for victims in a collapsed building drops dramatically over the first four to five days, after which the prospects of survival are extremely unlikely. According to one source, 81% of those rescued on the first day are likely to survive. This rate drops to 34% on the second day and falls to only 7% by the fifth day. These figures are not dissimilar to the Kobe HUSAR experience. In Oklahoma City, no live ­rescues occurred after the first 24 hours following the explosion.

In recent years, a number of events have focused attention on the need for a HUSAR capability in Canada.

  1. In Japan, the 1995 Kobe earthquake demonstrated that a large number of people can be trapped in structures without warning at a time when it is very difficult for first responders to cope with more than the most rudimentary of assistance.
  2. The 1995 collapse of the department store in Seoul, South Korea, illustrated the fact that there doesn’t have to be an earthquake to justify needing HUSAR resources.
  3. The Oklahoma City bombing showed that an established, trained, and available national capacity for HUSAR can save lives, relieve the suffering of families and friends, and locate essential forensic evidence.
  4. The copycat bombing at the Charlottetown, P.E.I. legislature, and the 1995 Toronto subway crash, alerted Canadians to the fact that HUSAR resources are required in Canada.
  5. Studies done in 1989 for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show that if the major earthquake predicted for the lower mainland of British Columbia were to occur, 10-30% of residential construction would become uninhabitable, and up to 30% of transportation routes would be unusable. Between 50 and 100% of un-reinforced masonry buildings would collapse or become unuseable, including older schools and hospitals (con­structed prior to 1940) that have not been strengthened.

Toronto’s HUSAR Capabilities
Specially trained and equipped search and rescue teams such as Canada Taskforce 3 (CAN-TF3) are available to respond outside of Toronto within six hours. Upon request, Toronto HUSAR will respond to any community, province-wide, or nation-wide request from those whose resources have been overwhelmed.

Protocols are in place so that when local capacity has been exceeded and additional assistance is needed from the Province, the fire co-ordinator can contact the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre of Emergency Manage­ment Ontario to request the assistance of the Toronto HUSAR team.

Toronto HUSAR can be deployed in part or as a whole to a variety of ­incidents. The team maintains a pre-determined 24/7 state of readiness, and is designed to be self-sufficient for up to 10 days. This readiness allows it to be deployed and react quickly to events, and to be deployable outside the City of Toronto, within the six hour mandate, when required.

Some specific capabilities of Toronto HUSAR include:

  • Physical search and rescue operations in damaged/ ­collapsed structures;
  • Emergency medical care to the injured;
  • Reconnaissance to assess the damages and needs, and provide feedback to local, provincial, and federal officials;
  • Assessment of utilities to houses and buildings;
  • Hazardous material surveys and evaluations;
  • Structural/hazard evaluations of government/municipal buildings needed for immediate occupancy to support ­disaster relief operations;
  • Stabilization of damaged structures, including shoring, and cribbing operations on damaged buildings.

When a fully self-sustained deployment is required, Canada Taskforce 3 will deploy 65 multi-disciplined team members to the situation, complete with search and rescue equipment, base camp (base of operations), team management, and medical and logistical support. The team can also be deployed in lesser numbers for smaller requirements.

Team members have been carefully selected and trained from a wide-range of emergency expertise from within the City of Toronto including:

  • Management, logistics, planning, administration, and rescue specialist capabilities from the Fire Services.
  • Advanced patient care capabilities from Emergency Medical Services.
  • Technical and canine search capabilities from Police Services.
  • Water Services provide heavy equipment capabilities.
  • Sunnybrook-Osler Centre for Pre-­hospital Care (Base Hospital) provides trauma physician capabilities.

The team is designed to respond by road, rail or air. Vehicles include: 1/2 ton pickups; 5-ton box trucks; 2 tractors/trailers; a 40-passenger bus; Gators; an all-terrain forklift and Argos. The over 200,000 lbs of equipment include a base camp, power equipment, food and water, search devices, rescue tools, air monitoring and hazardous materials identification equipment, trauma and life support equipment, and satellite and other wireless communications equipment.

HUSAR Benefits
It has been established that municipal fire services in the Greater Toronto Area, and in the province, lack the necessary capability that Toronto HUSAR will be able to provide. HUSAR adds a wide variety of technical rescue specialties to the current arsenal. The very nature of the team enhances the emergency preparedness of the city and the province.

Within its boundaries, Toronto HUSAR provides a greater ability to the city to deal internally with any type of disaster or threat before requesting outside assistance. This ensures a more efficient and effective response by getting needed expertise and resources on the scene sooner.

Urban Search and Rescue operations are extremely labour intensive. The vast majority of individual communities cannot afford to operate and sustain the extensive level of equipment, training and other resources required to provide HUSAR capabilities. Hence, the provincial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) provides access to Toronto’s HUSAR team where local capacity has been exhausted. It is essential, therefore, that all jurisdictions with this capability share as much common information as possible with the various components. Joint training exercises are strongly encouraged.

HUSAR Deployments
The year 2003 was a busy one for the Toronto HUSAR team. It was involved in numerous child find and crime scene situations, providing technical search expertise, structural access, and logistical support to Police operations – including the searches for missing Cecilia Djhang, Holly Jones, and Alexis Curry. Also, a gas explosion occurred, completely destroying a second-storey plaza when a damaged ­natural gas line ignited. Toronto HUSAR assisted Ontario’s OFM investigators, searching through the rubble for five days to locate and remove victims of the explosion. Also in 2003, Toronto’s Uptown Theatre collapsed. HUSAR members assisted the local resources in building ­stabilization and with search operations.

HUSAR – Training    
The heart and soul of this specialty rescue team are its people. Proper training is necessary for any rescue team to safely and effectively conduct rescue operations. No tools or technology can substitute for lack of training and experience. Other than the establishment of this project, training its the second biggest investment.

Considerable effort is placed on having every team member trained to a level slightly higher than is expected. The training for each member varies depending on his or her position and areas of responsibility.

Team member training covers skills development in areas that include technical search, structural collapse, building shoring, confined space and trench rescue, high and low angle rescue, water rescue, search operations, hazardous materials and emergency medical first response, crush injury awareness and treatment, logistics, advanced canine handling and first aid, and incident management.

All training programs comply with applicable standards for safety, consistency and thoroughness of the training. All training includes an evaluation com­ponent.

Deployment Exercises
Regular exercises are a key component of the HUSAR program. They test the skills and training of the teams, and improve the information exchange between team members. Examples of Toronto’s HUSAR team in action practicing their skills include:

2005 – Whitby, Ontario – The Toronto HUSAR Team conducted an off-site deployment exercise. The Team operated from a self-sustaining “Base of Opera­tions.” The mock situation began at 04:30 hours with a tornado ripping through the Durham area along the Taunton Road corridor. Toronto HUSAR was requested to perform search & rescue operations in the urban area. Throughout this three-day deployment, patients were successfully extricated from five separate collapsed building sites, with support assistance from the local fire department.

2006 – Calgary, Alberta – Toronto’s HUSAR Team participated in Canada’s first national search and rescue exercise. Forty-two team members were deployed to several simulated disaster situations over a three-day period. Tasked to safely and efficiently extricate patients trapped under various types of building debris, under high wind and cold weather conditions, Toronto formed up and operated with the other search and rescue teams. The exercise scenario called for out-of-province HUSAR teams that had been requested through the Alberta Emergency Operations Centre (AEOC), to assist Calgary’s Canada Taskforce 2 already supporting local responders. The exercise proceeded for 24 continuous hours and was, by all accounts, a great success.

2006 – Gatineau, Quebec – The Toronto HUSAR Team garnered its second gold medal as SARSCENE Games Champions at the annual competition. These games bring Canadian teams together to compete in various search and rescue events. The Competition involved several activities:

  • Search management
  • Navigation (map and compass skills)
  • Emergency scene management/medical (boat accident with casualties)
  • Evidence/clue search (lost child scenario)
  • Relay event
  • SAR questions
  • Knot tying
  • Map knowledge
  • Shelter building
  • Detection skills (locating pre-positioned clues)

2006 – Fergus, Ontario – This exercise challenged the logistical and technical aspects of operating in a realistic setting and tasked the Toronto HUSAR Team and one of the team’s partners, the Ontario Provincial Police’s Provincial Emergency Response Team (PERT), in a cooperative exercise deployment conducted over a five-day period in August 2006 in Fergus, Ontario.

Exercise scenario: as a result of a ­tornado, a local high school containing a large number of occupants had partially collapsed. Victims were situated throughout the building. CAN-TF3 and PERT were mobilized and deployed to assist local authorities. As a result, a total of 32 rescue tasks were performed, with the successful extrication of 21 victims.

Having a chance to come together and exercise using common equipment and shared procedures and resources is a great way to demonstrate the depth of training and knowledge contained within the ­various teams.

2007 – Toronto, Ontario – Toronto CBRN, HUSAR and PERT teams organized an annual off-site deployment exercise in June. The scenario began at a recently vacated hotel, with a series of explosions deemed “intentional” by first responders. More undetonated explosives remained in area buildings and the CBRN response team was deployed at the ­outset. The HUSAR and PERT teams then entered and conducted a series of search and rescue situations through the five-day exercise. The exercise included many partners; the Office of the Fire Marshal, St. John Ambulance, Toronto Emergency Medical Service, Toronto Police Service, and Emergency Management Ontario (EMO), as well as federal representatives, and other fire services in the Greater Toronto Area.

Wrap Up
There remains an urgent need for a strategy that takes into account the local, provincial and federal efforts to date and provides an over-arching, coordinated, and sustainable framework to enhance the country’s readiness to manage both natural and man-made incidents of this nature. Canada Task Force 3 is ready to do its share!

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Carol-Lynn Chambers is the Operations Manager with the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal, overseeing the Provincial CBRNE/Hazmat/HUSAR program.

Doug Silver is the Division Chief, Professional Development and Training, Toronto Fire Services and Special Teams Coordinator – HUSAR.
© FrontLine Security 2007

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