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peter-sellsNov. 26, 2013, Toronto – Sometimes it’s hard to find the right title for a blog or column, but not this time. Any step toward increased rail safety, however small or tardy, is nevertheless a step in the right direction. On Nov. 20, Lisa Raitt, minister of transport, issued a protective direction, directing rail companies to share information with municipalities.

November 26, 2013
By Peter Sells

Nov. 26, 2013, Toronto – Sometimes it’s hard to find the right title for a blog or column, but not this time. Any step toward increased rail safety, however small or tardy, is nevertheless a step in the right direction. On Nov. 20, Lisa Raitt, minister of transport, issued a protective direction, directing rail companies to share information with municipalities.

A protective direction is “a direction issued under section 32 of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act to cease an activity or to conduct other activities to reduce any danger to public safety.” The announcement from Transport Canada, including a link to the protective direction, is here.

The meat and potatoes of protective direction, effective immediately, are that:

• Class 1 railways must provide municipalities with yearly aggregate information, presented by quarter, on the nature and volume of dangerous goods transported by rail through that municipality; and
• Anyone other than Class 1 railways who transports dangerous goods by rail must provide the same yearly aggregate information and notify municipalities of any significant changes to that information, as soon as possible.

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Reaction to Raitt’s announcement has been mixed; in fact it runs the gamut from outright rejection to enthusiastic acceptance.

Halifax city councillor Reg Rankin, who sits on the city’s Transportation Committee, said in a CBC interview that the direction is "useless for an emergency if that's the intent.” Rankin maintains it would be preferable for railway companies to provide information on what's about to come through a city or town, so that first responders heading to a derailment would know exactly what they'll face when they get there.

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, on the other hand, seems to applaud Transport Canada wholeheartedly. In its media release the following day, the CAFC said: “We are pleased that the Minister of Transport has listened to the concerns and recommendations of the fire service and Canada’s municipalities and we welcome this significant step forward in improving Canada’s rail safety regulations.

“As the voice of the Canadian fire service and our country’s 120,000 firefighters, we have been working with the Minister of Transport and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to put forward recommendations to ensure emergency responders have the information, training and emergency planning protocols to protect Canadians and our communities when incidents occur.”

Both of those opinions, from knowledgeable sources, can’t be ignored, but neither can they be easily reconciled. The problem lies in the expectation of each party. Councillor Rankin’s desire for proactive notice of what’s coming down the line is hard to criticize, but would also be hard to manage. The sheer volume of information would be staggering. Who would it go to, and what would the recipient(s) do with it? Aside from those info-logistics (if that’s not a word, it should be), advance notification was not the intent of the protective direction. From the Transport Canada media release;

“These measures address requests from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and its members for more information on the dangerous goods being transported by rail in their communities.”

By contrast, the CAFC’s apparent expectations of “training and emergency planning protocols” are a bit too enthusiastic. There is nothing in the protective direction that ensures that emergency responders have any training whatsoever. The Transport Canada media release says that;

“In addition these measures further support municipal emergency planners and first responders with their emergency planning and response training.”

Stated otherwise, emergency planners and first responders can use the retroactive information about what nasty stuff went through town in the previous quarter, or previous year, as an expectation of what will be rolling through in the coming year. The best spin that can be put on this information would be to describe it as a forward-looking benchmark for preparedness, to serve as a needs analysis for locally developed training initiatives.

Any actual efforts by Ottawa to ensure that local emergency responders have adequate training disappeared with the closure of the Canadian Emergency Preparedness College and the cancellation of Joint Emergency Preparedness Program funding. Those assets may not have been available to everyone or funded strongly enough, but they were the only federal efforts that dribbled down to municipalities, and now they are gone. Yeah, I’m like a broken record on that issue, but shouldn’t we all be? If the feds can keep patting themselves on the back for their minor efforts, we can keep pointing out their major shortcomings.

This latest move by Transport Canada is what it is – better late than never; a step in the right direction, but definitely not enough.

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 peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.