By Peter Sells
April 23, 2013, Toronto - The RCMP have successfully thwarted a plot to derail a VIA Rail train somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area. I was in my car when the news came across the airwaves, and I ended up in my driveway, ears glued to the speakers, waiting for a long enough period of French commentary to zip into the house and turn on the TV. Fifteen seconds later, on the couch with remote in hand, I was watching the details being revealed from a press conference in Toronto.
By Peter Sells
April 23, 2013, Toronto – The RCMP have successfully thwarted a plot to derail a VIA Rail train somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area. I was in my car when the news came across the airwaves, and I ended up in my driveway, ears glued to the speakers, waiting for a long enough period of French commentary to zip into the house and turn on the TV. Fifteen seconds later, on the couch with remote in hand, I was watching the details being revealed from a press conference in Toronto.
The Mounties, in concert with their partners in the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) – being the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada Border Services Agency, Toronto Police Service, York Regional Police, Peel Regional Police, Ontario Provincial Police, Durham Regional Police, the Sûreté du Québec, and the service de police de la Ville de Montréal – and with the assistance of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Transport Canada, VIA Rail and CN Police, had arrested two individuals who had been planning the derailment.
The reporters at the news conference were pressing for more details, of course, and, as usual, were filling in the blanks with speculation and assumptions. The RCMP stated only that the train would have been on a specific route involving Toronto, not whether it would have been inbound or outbound, or where it would have been going to or coming from. The press were undeterred, and this became reported as a Toronto-New York train, with one text banner stating that the train would have been derailed on the bridge crossing the Niagara River.
The RCMP media relations people were very disciplined and message-driven. The derailment was never imminent, there was never a threat to public safety, the suspects had received guidance from Al Queda elements in Iran, no further details would be released as the investigation was ongoing.
How about these details: Were the fire and EMS services in any potentially affected municipality advised or alerted? After all, who are the partners after the fact?
In fairness, we are not security services, and since the derailment was not deemed to be imminent, unnecessary dissemination of information could have compromised the investigation. We are not structured for or disciplined in criminal investigation strategies, tactics or tasks. The old adage about the most efficient means of communication being telephone, telegraph and tell a firefighter has a ring of truth to it. However, if the train goes off the track, would we get our JEPP funds back? Should the feds not look at the biggest possible picture here, and put public safety back on the front burner? Heck, at this juncture we’d even take a side burner. This train may have been targeted in Toronto, but would it have been derailed in the city, where it would be moving relatively slowly, or two hours out at full speed – more direct carnage, in an area relatively underserved by all response agencies.
All fire and EMS services adjacent to any major rail corridor in Canada should be specifically trained and exercised in response to derailment of passenger or cargo trains. Period. Nothing less is acceptable.
The training programs and curricula exist, but how many smaller services have had access to them? Canada has about 73,000 kilometres of railway tracks. There are accidents – minor mishaps or major derailments – all the time, with 1,023 in 2011 alone, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Only two major derailments have occurred in cities with robust first-response resources (and this is said with all due respect to the small-town and rural fire services who do the same job at the same or greater risk with far fewer resources), those being in Burlington, Ont., in 2012, and Mississauga, Ont., in 1979. If money can be spent on tight partnerships and co-ordination among municipal, provincial and federal law enforcement to thwart a derailment, then money should be found for those of us, big and small, who have to clean up the derailments that will still occur.
Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.