Heavy Urban Search & Rescue
Nov 14, 2007

The Toronto Police Service Search Management Team includes members from Toronto’s HUSAR (Heavy Urban Search and Rescue) Canada Task Force 3, which was established in 2000. This joint forces team is comprised of members of Toronto’s Fire, Police, and Emergency Medical Services, plus Toronto Works and Emergency Services and staff from the Sunnybrook and Woman’s College Hospital. The multi-agency representation of this team brings many varied skills and abilities to the forefront. The level of cooperation and respect for each member within this team has been recognized at an international level and has created a team of highly trained and dedicated people working seamlessly towards the accomplishment of search and rescue goals. 

What indeed is Heavy Urban Search and Rescue? In short, Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) is the capacity to rescue victims from major structural collapse or other entrapments. 

USAR’s roots can be traced back to the United States, specifically after a series of earthquakes in 1989. These earthquakes created an awareness that special rescue operations required special training and knowledge, as well as the ability to utilize heavy equipment and tools to extricate trapped victims. The determination for this training initially came from the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, which established a National Search and Rescue program. This program was comprised of some 28 FEMA teams throughout the nation. 

The City of Vancouver, with its relative proximity to this same earthquake zone, took the Canadian lead in 1995 and established Canada Task Force 1. Their team, the first in Canada, then trained personnel from the city of Vancouver in heavy search and rescue tactics, information that was ultimately shared to every other team that followed in Canada.

Let us think for a moment of the affects on a large city that such unpredictable events could have: a massive ­hurricane (like Hazel in 1954) has flooded massive portions of the Greater Toronto Area and much like Louisiana, people are stranded and dying; a tornado (as in Woodstock in 1985) has touched down and caused buildings to topple, trapping the residents among the debris; winter has struck with a vengeance, depositing so much snow on a crowded shopping mall the week before Christmas that it collapses and thousands are injured and trapped; a terrorist’s bomb is detonated and causes massive structural damage to a downtown office tower. In all these cases, members of the community are trapped within the debris, some already dead, others will soon to die without rapid and effective aid. 

These scenarios may appear to be unlikely, but when they do happen, the community will look to HUSAR Teams to come to their immediate aid. 

The HUSAR family has grown across Canada over the years. Currently there are teams in Vancouver (Canada TF-1, Canada’s first HUSAR Team), Calgary (CAN TF-2), Toronto (CAN TF-3) Manitoba (CAN TF-4) and Halifax (CAN TF-5). 

The Toronto team has had the opportunity to work with the Provincial Emergency Response Team of the Ontario Provincial Police. These teams have had the ability to train together in joint exercises, ensuring that each team will be capable of working with each other in a coordinated and seamless fashion. All teams are trained to the National Fire Protection Standard 1670, and these standards are maintained throughout the year. 

Training has taken TF-3 members to Texas, Vancouver, Calgary and Los Angeles. The team has members from all services qualified in the role as HUSAR instructors, ensuring that training standards are maintained. The team is currently capable of deploying anywhere in the province of Ontario and along with Manitoba, is one of the only winter deployable teams in North America. The ultimate team objective is to have the Team consist of two identical components, able to deploy provincially and yet still maintain a ready team in the Toronto area. The team prepares itself with ongoing training throughout the year, with at least 2 major exercises conducted annually. 

To date, components of the Toronto team have been deployed to the Uptown Theatre collapse in December of 2004 and the Bloor Street West Strip mall explosion in April of the same year. The City of Toronto has gained a valuable asset with this team, and is closer to accomplishing levels of preparedness required for a city of this size. 

At a 2006 training exercise and mock deployment in Fergus Ontario, Capt. Tony Comella of the Toronto Fire Service (team co-ordinator and exercise designer) stated: “I always knew the team was very capable of performing to this level. It is nice to hear us referred to as the premier team in Canada”. Representatives from the Federal Government had attended the training and responded with these kudos after observing the teams efforts throughout this exercise.

The HUSAR team remains current with their training and deployment readiness by continually practising their skills through training or the participation in these types of mock exercises. The Team recently completed their fourth mock deployment in the spring of 2007 at an exercise in the airport area of Toronto. This training became even more realistic when the BOO (base of operations) was struck by a microburst storm, which destroyed some of the sleeping quarters. This dose of realism reinforced the high level of training required by team members and proved that despite this true “disaster”, the team was deterred from their primary task for a ­period of only three hours. Clearly, this proves that the team is ready to surmount any obstacles that they may encounter and will not be dissuaded from their assigned responsibilities. 

The federal government recently ­supported this level of preparedness by ­announcing full support for the team when national disaster deployments are required.  Now a memorandum of understanding ­between the team and the Department of Safety and Emergency Preparedness in ­Ottawa is in place and this memorandum, endorsed by Toronto City Council, mirrors similar agreements in place with the Province of Ontario. This agreement will provide the financing required to support the team during national deployments.

This government support, making the Toronto HUSAR team a federal asset, clearly defines the strength and value of this team to the residents of the City of Toronto. These residents can rest easily with the knowledge that they have a world class disaster response team at their disposal, a team of highly trained emergency professionals, cross trained in a variety of disciplines, who are ready to respond as required. As the size and training of the team increases, these available benefits will also be recognized as a national resource to the citizens of Canada.  

The author would like to ackowledge the article contributions made by Scott Roberts and Tony Comella.

Sgt. Stephen Sadler is a 20-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service, and is the Training Sergeant for the Public Safety and Emergency Planning Unit, responsible for instructing crowd management and missing person search techniques. He is a member of the TPS Search Management Team, a HUSAR instructor, and a certified ITLS instructor. 

All photos courtesy of HUSAR Training.