01/15/2012 06:00 EST | Updated 03/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Spirit Lake Plane Crash On First Nations Reserve Highlights Lack Of Emergency Services

TORONTO - A fatal plane crash in a northern Ontario First Nations community has raised concerns about the availability of essential emergency services on remote reserves after residents who rushed to the scene tried to douse the flaming wreckage with snow.

Tuesday's crash in North Spirit Lake, Ont., killed four people and injured one other, despite efforts by residents to put the fire out with snow or gouge a hole in the lake to try to pump water on the burning airplane.

"In the case of this accident, that just explains and describes what is a pretty atrocious emergency response system in those communities, where you're having to put a fire out when a plane crashes with snow balls," said Ontario New Democrat Gilles Bisson, who represents the area of James Bay.

"In places like Timmins or Sudbury or Toronto, we have emergency response equipment in our airports in order to be able to respond emergencies such as these, and we have people who are properly trained. None of that exists inside those communities."

Sgt. Jacquie George of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service said the force had an officer at the crash, but in these cases, it's always the community that is first on the scene. Like many small reserves, North Spirit Lake doesn't have its own fire truck or ambulance.

"There is no structure or funding of any kind for people who are first on the scene to be able to deal with that kind of situation," she said.

That lone NAPS officer would have received word from one of the community members, zipped out to the lake on a snowmobile, checked out scene and looked for survivors, George said.

He would have administered any first aid possible and helped whoever he could, before having to go back to his detachment to find a telephone and notify his supervisors.

"As you can see, it's not like in an urban setting when something like this happens and there's an immediate set type of emergency plan that takes place," she said.

It's a similar situation with emergencies such as house fires.

"It would be safe to say a lot of our communities don't have volunteer firefighting units, nor do they have any equipment," said Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents dozens of northern Ontario First Nations, including North Spirit Lake.

"If there's no volunteer group then there's not much that can be done, the house is left to burn."

The lack of a proper response system on First Nations reserves was also underlined last year in Manitoba.

That province's chief medical examiner ordered an inquest into whether First Nations had adequate firefighting equipment and personnel after the deaths of several people in separate house fires on two northern reserves, including three young children.

In one of those fires, the local water truck was used to try to put out the blaze because there was no fire truck available.

It's also been a source of concern in communities like Attawapiskat, where a severe housing shortage has led to living arrangements that include up to 90 people crammed in one trailer and families with babies or young children living in unheated homes without fire alarms or smoke detectors.

Metatawabin said NAN would welcome a more structured system of emergency services, noting that under the current setup, the only communities that have any kind of fire response in place are the ones that have taken the initiative to organize a volunteer force.

It's also increasingly important amid a rise in forest fires, he said, but since the communities are under the fiduciary responsibility of the federal government, it's up to Ottawa to provide that funding and support.

"It's the government that needs to start planning or start thinking about providing all the essential services that are required in any community," Metatawabin said.

Funding for emergency services are split between the provinces and the federal government, although fire services are solely a federal responsibility.

In Ontario, the government has provided more than $220.4 million to First Nations police services since 2003, and is also investing $12 million to improve policing infrastructure in 15 First Nations communities.

When contacted, the federal government did not provide funding figures but said the Department of Aboriginal Affairs worked with its provincial and territorial partners to ensure First Nations in remote parts of Canada are safe.

But First Nations insist the funding isn't enough, and the small increases provided to fire and police programs aren't usually enough to keep up with rising costs.

The lack of a proper police station in the Kashechewan First Nation in 2006, for instance, led to the death of two prisoners who were locked in a makeshift station when a fire erupted and severely injured an officer.

"The federal government is uninterested and the provincial government doesn't want to do anything unless the feds do because they're worried that they'll end up having to take the leadership on it," Bisson said.

"All I know is that when there's a fire called in the middle of the night, who gives a hell who is responsible? All that people want to know is that fire services will come to their home."