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CATCHING SPILLS FROM HIGHWAYS

Simple idea protects environment, makes fire fighters’ job easier

December 7, 2007
By KAREN BEST

One catch basin at a time, Wray Ramsay is making Ontario a safer place for farmers and fire fighters. Eliminating the need to wade into hazardous liquids, his spill program gives fire fighters the information they need to keep toxins out of water sources.

Since he created the Spills Program, his work has drawn accolades from Ontario government officials, fire chiefs and a hazardous materials specialist.

In April, Phil McNeely of the Ontario transportation ministry commended Ramsay for advancing the program and encouraged him to continue working with the ministry regional office to expand it in southwestern Ontario. McNeely is a ministry parliamentary assistant.

Gordon Start of the regional office described drainage outlet points as key areas to control in the event of a spill. Ramsay’s program improves emergency response on Highway 401, the ministry technical services supervisor said. The 401 is a major highway corridor from the Quebec border through Toronto to Windsor.

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It was changes on this highway that led to Ramsay’s innovative program.  Fourteen years ago a median barrier was erected between the north and south sides of the highway. During construction of two additional lanes on either side of the concrete barrier, 365 catch basins were installed in the 17 kilometres of highway through his township. “No one knew where they outlet,” said Ramsay.

With 42 years experience with engineering and drainage, he always questioned the unknown destination of hazardous liquid spills under the new highway configuration.

In 2004, a simple question at a fire chief’s retirement party inspired him create to a program that now identifies the directional flow of water in South-West Oxford Township, where he is the municipal drainage superintendent.

The retiring fire chief told Ramsay that township fire fighters used bales of straw and kitty litter to contain and absorb spills on one of Ontario’s busiest highways. Township fire fighters from the Oxford Centre, Beachville and Mount Elgin fire stations respond to highway accidents on the 401.

Ramsay began fundraising to purchase spills kits from FireZorb International in Woodstock, Ont. He was just over half way to his goal of $3,000 when the company’s owner, Ron Porter, decided to donate 10 kits for several fire halls throughout Oxford County, which is the regional district that encompasses South-West Oxford Township and other municipalities. The raised monies were given to food banks at Porter’s request.

The spill kits include land and water booms that retain and soak up liquids, poly pads to place under leaking vehicles and MultiZorb, a dry product that absorbs spills on pavement.

A fire fighter for 25 years with two Oxford County stations, Porter donated the kits because he knows volunteer fire departments struggle to train fire fighters and cannot afford equipment required to deal with a chemical spill. Only Windsor, London, Toronto and Vaughan fire departments have hazardous materials teams, he noted.

He also donated a portable decontamination unit with a four-pool system. A fire fighter who has come into contact with a hazardous material is processed through the unit and goes clean to the hospital for treatment, he said. He trained fire fighters in Oxford County on the system which, through mutual aid, can be made available to other departments.

Porter also commended Ramsay for his spills program. Over the years, a lot of hazardous liquids have drained onto agricultural land, he said. The program also protects fire fighters who no longer have to wade into spills to find out what culvert they are entering, Porter added.

Greatly appreciating Porter’s generosity, Ramsay began to tackle the water flow issue. He asked and received drainage plans from the regional transportation ministry office.

Largely on his own time, Ramsay created a booklet that identified every catch basin and the direction of liquid flow from it. Many basins drained into each of the 27 crossings under the highway. In his booklet of highway data sheets, he described where outlets flowed. This included tile drains, culverts, private outlets and streams and rivers.

Ramsay assigned a number to each of the catch basins and the number is correlated to a page number in the booklet where details are listed. On the highway barrier in the township, the ministry installed reflective six inch blue signs with an arrow indicating flow at every catch basin. 

“I saw a problem with catch basins and no one else saw it,” said Ramsay, who is humble and matter-of-fact about his accomplishment. “I did this to help people and that’s the main reason. People said thank you and that’s all that’s necessary.”
The drainage superintendent, who oversees drains through farmland, wanted to keep hazardous materials off farms and out of their ponds and streams. “Pollution is the main part of it,” he said.

At this year’s rural municipality conference, he met with a transportation ministry official and the Ontario environment minister. Both were pleased with the project which went live in August 2005.

Shortly after the program was announced, Mount Elgin fire fighters called him at 4 a.m. one morning to a truck accident. They were pouring water on the burning vehicle and it was not pooling on the highway. Unknown to them, the truck took out the six-inch catch basin sign. Arriving with his volunteer fire fighter green light activated, Ramsay, who is willing to respond 24 hours a day, determined that the truck was sitting over the basin.

“That’s the best part,” said Mount Elgin Fire Chief Eric Johnson. “We have his knowledge coming up behind us.”
The chief, who is a farmer, said the spills program is a great identification system. “You have to give him all the credit in the world,” he added, pointing out that other municipalities are picking it up.

At the end of 2005, Ramsay made a presentation to the London Fire Department’s hazardous materials team and Deputy Fire Chief Dave Kitterman, who is responsible for the team. They were immediately interested. The benefits outweigh any work involved, he said.

The city’s haz-mat team focuses first on human and life safety. Priority number two, environmental protection, will be enhanced with Ramsay’s program. “It sounds like such a simple idea with great results,” noted Kitterman.

Pleased with London’s initiative to go with the program, Ramsay was finishing up catch basin data on the 70 kilometres of the 401 from Woodstock to London. By this summer, 140 markers will be installed and the program will be live on this stretch of the highway.

The drainage specialist is not done yet. His goal is to establish the program on all Ontario 400 series highways. From a professional standpoint, Porter said that the program should be in place from Montreal to Windsor.

The Ontario transportation ministry supports the initiative and will work with other municipal governments and fire departments that want to bring the program into their jurisdictions, said Start.


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