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Flashpoint: February 2010

I’ll admit it; it’s an obsession, maybe even an addiction. I am a news junkie. I can’t pass a newspaper stand without at least glancing at the headlines. If CNN is on, good luck getting my attention.

February 17, 2010
By Peter Sells

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I’ll admit it; it’s an obsession, maybe even an addiction. I am a news junkie. I can’t pass a newspaper stand without at least glancing at the headlines. If CNN is on, good luck getting my attention. And although my passion for information has served me well over the years in terms of my education, it may not seem relevant for a firefighter to be able to rattle off facts and figures of current events like a walking Wikipedia (I’ve been called worse, by the way).

But international affairs are relevant to Canada, and to the Canadian fire service because they offer insight into scenarios that might happen: they prepare us for the unthinkable.  Let me give you a few examples and then I’ll just change a few details:

June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182

We all remember this, but do we all appreciate its significance? Air India flight 182 was blown up over the North Atlantic in Irish air space by a bomb placed in a suitcase in the cargo hold. Sikh separatists, living in British Columbia, who felt they had a grievance against the Indian government, decided that the way to deal with this was to bring down two Air India planes nearly simultaneously over two locations across the globe. The second plane was spared, at the expense of the life of two Japanese baggage handlers, when that bomb exploded early.

Why is this significant? The world was shocked by the attacks on 9-11. But it is not generally recognized that a greater portion of the population of Canada was killed in the Air India bombing than the portion of the population of the U.S. killed on Sept. 11, 2001. Ken MacQueen and John Geddes wrote in Maclean’s that “The date, June 23, 1985, is not seared into the nation’s soul. The events of that day snuffed out hundreds of innocent lives and altered the destinies of thousands more, but it neither shook the foundations of government, nor transformed its policies. It was not, in the main, even officially acknowledged as an act of terrorism.”

Dec. 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103

Pan Am’s third daily flight from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK was destroyed in mid-air by a bomb, killing 259 passengers and crew on the plane and 11 people on the ground in and around the town of Lockerbie in southern Scotland. I wonder if any of us can imagine the horror of that scene, especially considering how totally unexpected it would have been to the innocent people of Lockerbie.

This incident serves to remind us that although the Earth’s surface is 71 per cent ocean, this leaves 29 per cent solid ground for airplanes to fall onto. We live, work, play and fight fires on the solid ground part.

Last August, the world watched in disgust and bewilderment as the perpetrator of this mass murder, a former Libyan intelligence officer and head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds on the basis that he had only months to live before succumbing to cancer. He was subsequently received with much fanfare by Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, a spectacle that generated international condemnation and scorn (like that seems to matter).

Christmas Day, 2009, Northwest Airlines Flight 253

Which brings us to current events – the attempted destruction of a Northwest Airlines Airbus A-330 on final descent into Detroit by a man who had planted a bomb in his underpants and achieved only “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” 

This is extremely important for us to understand – the flight path of this Amsterdam to Detroit route goes directly across the most heavily populated corridor in Canada. This plane could have come down, depending on variations in the flight path due to wind conditions, in Windsor, Sarnia, London, the Waterloo region, the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, Montreal or Quebec City.  Similarly, Pan Am 103 could have rained down onto St. John’s, Charlottetown, Moncton or Halifax. Not to minimize or in any way qualify the Lockerbie tragedy, but one disgruntled Nigerian extremist could easily have killed hundreds, if not thousands of Canadians along with himself and the rest of the people on Northwest 253. You don’t have to be a genius to put a bomb in your shorts.

We have a need to know what is going on in the world, because the world is getting smaller and tighter by the minute. Politics, religion, poverty, aggression and fanaticism all have the potential to literally land in our backyards at a moment’s notice. Every fire service needs to have a plan, co-ordinated with our partners in police and EMS, for response to mass casualty incidents of the type that I have described above.

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!  Are you ready?


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 councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch.


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