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Turkish Consulate says deadline for Canadian rescue teams in quake zone has passed

Burnaby team is and will be the only team from Canada acting as rescuers in the quake zone
In this drone photo, destroyed buildings are seen from above in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Thousands who lost their homes in a catastrophic earthquake huddled around campfires and clamored for food and water in the bitter cold, three days after the temblor and series of aftershocks hit Turkey and Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Turkey’s consulate in Vancouver says a private group of volunteers from British Columbia will be the only Canadian search and rescue team in the nation’s earthquake zone, after a deadline for others to participate expired.

Canadian federal authorities have not given an official go-ahead to any rescue teams since Monday’s quake that killed thousands, but the consulate says the Burnaby Urban Search and Rescue group was deployed in Turkey early Thursday morning local time after independently offering help.

The consulate says in a statement the Burnaby team, made up of firefighters and other first responders, “is and will be the only team from Canada” acting as rescuers in the quake zone.

B.C.’s Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said Thursday that the province had reached out to Public Safety Canada on Monday morning about the possibility of rescue teams being deployed because such assistance needed to be co-ordinated.

Ma said the province had since been in constant daily contact with Public Safety Canada but had “yet to receive direction.”

She said she would not “presume to know what conversations Global Affairs Canada is having with partners.”

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said Canada’s commitment of $10 million to quake relief efforts was the fastest response available, rather than sending a specialized Heavy Urban Search and Rescue, or HUSAR, team.

Sajjan, a former police officer and soldier who was a member of a search and rescue team before entering politics, said Thursday that money could be quickly distributed in relief efforts, while sending rescuers was logistically and geographically challenging. Sending other forms of aid, he said, potentially created bottlenecks that hamper instead of help.

“Other nations sometimes end up sending resources that clog up the system,” he said. “You need to make sure that the right resource gets to the right place at the right time.”

Sajjan said it was important to avoid a situation like what happened after the 2021 earthquake in Haiti, with donations pouring into warehouses that became “regrettably clogged up with stuff that actually wasn’t actually needed on the ground.”

The minister said Canada should focus on “building capabilities” of other countries’ teams to provide immediate disaster response rather than having them rely on outside help. Mobilizing a HUSAR team, Sajjan said, involves co-ordination between three levels of government and the movement of heavy equipment. “You can’t just send a team and drop them off,” he said. “It is not as simple as that.”

Justin Mulcahy, director of Vancouver’s HUSAR team, said “there has been no official request” from Ottawa to deploy the group, which is in the process of getting international accreditation from a UN-affiliated agency that would allow them to deploy on short notice.

“We’re working on that through this accreditation process so we can be in a position in the future to be able to immediately deploy our teams internationally,” Mulcahy said. “Our focus has been on having these teams available for use locally, provincially and federally.”

Though the team hasn’t been able to put their skills to use this week, Mulcahy said “the events in Turkey and Syria really do highlight the need for HUSAR teams domestically.”

“The magnitude of the earthquake that happened is a realistic prediction for a major urban centre like Vancouver.”

The Vancouver Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team operates under the city’s fire department.

Mulcahy’s predecessor with the team, David Boone, said it would be a mistake to put the city’s HUSAR team in the same category as the volunteer team from Burnaby that deployed to Turkey soon after the quake.

Teams associated with non-governmental organizations don’t have the same co-ordination and logistical challenges of moving people and large amounts of equipment, he said.

“If an NGO wishes to do something, they have no one to answer to but themselves,” Boone said, adding that he couldn’t speak to any official requests to deploy the team involving various levels of government.

Taylan Tokmak, Turkey’s consul general in Vancouver, said Wednesday that the Burnaby team was already in the Turkish quake zone, near the town of Adiyaman.

Emergency minister Ma said the Burnaby team “self-deployed.”

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by several powerful aftershocks, ravaged parts of southeastern Turkey and northwest Syria, flattening buildings and killing many thousands of people.

—Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press

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