That, in the opinion of this House, the government should consider the advisability of introducing right to know legislation for the protection of firefighters and other public servants who, in the course of duty, are confronted by fires or disasters involving potentially harmful substances such as toxic chemicals.
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise today to urge the House to support the motion. It has not been deemed votable but nevertheless it could be voted on and passed if there were a will to do so. The House can do this by unanimous consent. The procedure by which resolutions or private members' bills are deemed votable was designed so only a minimum number of motions and bills would be votable. It was not designed in any way to prevent more than the required amount from becoming votable, if the House chose to do so. I urge the House to do that today if there is a will on the government side to allow the motion to go forward. I will explain why I think that should be done.
I thank my seconder in this instance, the member for Kamloops, for helping me today and also the International Association of Firefighters with which I have worked closely over the last little while in developing this motion, along with a couple of others, a notification protocol for infectious diseases and the public safety benefit.
The motion urges the government to improve the safety regime for firefighters and other emergency response personnel. Firefighters as well as other emergency response personnel are often called on to risk their lives to deal with accidents and emergencies involving highly volatile and toxic chemical substances at great personal risk not just in the immediate sense but also in the long term sense. Studies have shown firefighters have higher vulnerability and a higher incidents of certain diseases associated with exposure to these kinds of toxic chemicals.
They need to have rapid, accurate and complete information about these hazardous materials where lack of information can cost lives. It is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure all reasonable measures are taken to provide that information. That is what this motion is about.
I take the opportunity of this debate to make a specific proposal. If the government is looking for something it could get behind in a concrete and practical way the passage of this motion would create a context in which it might do so.
I will make a specific proposal for this kind of problematic situation involving toxic substances, accidents that occur during the transportation of hazardous materials. In other words, it is not only with respect to transportation that these things happen but in the transport sector we could, as I will go on to suggest, have a pilot project.
Firefighters have been calling on the government to take the first steps in the development of a state of the art system to provide emergency response personnel with the information they need by taking advantage of the latest computer technologies and software.
This is an issue on which there is clearly little occasion for partisan politics. I hope members from all sides of the House will support this motion and that the government will let it come to a vote if someone on the government side near the end of the debate could seek unanimous consent to have this go forward. I am not aware of any members of the House who are opposed to this. It is after all only a motion which asks the government to consider the advisability of it. For the House to pass this motion would afford Transport Canada an excellent occasion to move this important file forward.
Accidents involving hazardous materials pose a number of special challenges to emergency response personnel. On the one hand the consequences of not reacting quickly and in the appropriate manner can result in the death or injury of not only emergency personnel but of large numbers bystanders if accidents occur in densely populated locals.
On the other hand because such accidents occur relatively rarely, giving personnel very little experience in dealing with such emergencies and involve highly complex chemical compounds, it is often difficult for personnel to react quickly in the appropriate manner. Immediate access to information about the
contents of containers and the necessary procedures to be followed is the key to improving this safety regime in Canada.
The current system which uses placards on containers to identify the contents is not one that fulfils all the needs of emergency response personnel. Firefighters told us when we met with them recently at their national lobby in Ottawa that the placards do not always provide sufficient information to aid emergency workers and that these placards are often missing or destroyed by virtue of the very accident that has called them to the scene in the first place. We are in urgent need of an upgrade in the reporting system for these emergency response situations.
Fortunately there is an emerging technology which would prove to be very useful in filling the gaps in the current system. Computer software along with communications links between firefighters and police dispatch stations and the transport companies is now being developed which would allow emergency response personnel almost instantaneous access to detailed information to be taken directly from transport companies' data bases.
Not only could such a computer linkup provide firefighters with precise information about the contents of a container, it could also provide detailed guidance about the necessary safety precautions to be taken when dealing with the material in question.
It has also been shown that such a computer linkup could help emergency response personnel in the event of train derailments involving passengers trapped in damaged rail cars. The linkup could provide rescue workers with detailed plans of how these rail cars are constructed with blueprints which could aid them in their search for trapped passengers.
While this network is now a technological possibility it is up to the federal government to take a leadership role in developing the specific computer software and communications networks and putting a system in place.
The International Association of Firefighters has been urging the government to begin the development process by establishing a pilot project in concert with industry, labour and local government stakeholders. It is proposed that such a pilot project take place in a major transportation centre that would permit the stakeholders to experiment with the new software and communications links and to demonstrate the system's effectiveness for later use across Canada.
Winnipeg with its thriving rail and truck traffic has been suggested as an ideal choice for such a project not by me but by those interested in this project; although Winnipeg is not always as thriving as I would like it to be on the rail side.
I hope my fellow colleagues from the Winnipeg area would help make the case to the government for passing this motion and also that if there were a pilot project to follow the government consider very seriously using Winnipeg as a place where this project might proceed.
The primary aim of going forward with such a project in a timely manner is to save lives, the lives of the firefighters who at present work in dangerous situations without all the information they need and the lives of residents in communities where accidents occur.
There is also an important international dimension to this question. The American department of transport has already begun work on developing such communications networks and it is helping fund a pilot project in the Houston, Texas area called operation respond. All indications are that the experiment is proceeding well and that the department of transport will be moving to set up a national system of regulations for the transportation of hazardous materials.
In the context of NAFTA, Canadian export and transport industries will be directly affected by such regulations and there will no doubt be pressure for harmonization. It is therefore imperative that Canada develop its own system which meets particularly Canadian needs so that in the future we will not be obliged to adopt uncritically or simply out of necessity the American regulations by default because we did not have the foresight to apply the available technology to a pressing safety issue in Canada on our own.
I believe all members of the House will want to do whatever is in their power to improve the safety of firefighters and their fellow emergency response workers. Here is a case where the hype about the possibilities of the new information revolution might actually live up to expectations and do something concrete in terms of human health and human safety.
Who would deny firefighters access to state of the art technology in situations in which they are laying their lives on the line? Who would deny them the right and the means to know exactly what they are handling in these very dangerous situations?
Support for this motion would be an excellent means for members of the House to convey to firefighters on behalf of all Canadians we are grateful of the often heroic service they provide, and to convey our support for their efforts to improve safety in their work environment.
I hope the government will allow members of the House to do this by passing this motion; allow members to convey the grateful support of Canadians to firefighters by using its discretion collectively speaking to allow this motion to come to a vote
or to be passed by unanimous consent. I cannot imagine that we would divide on the matter. Either we will pass it by unanimous consent or it will be talked out.
I understand the government believes the wording of this motion is too vague and without specific reference to the transport of hazardous materials to be allowed to come to a vote. I have talked to the Ministry of Transport about this.
I suggest to the contrary this motion simply conveys to the government the House's desire that it take action on improving a firefighter's safety and would give the government a welcome boost in the ongoing discussions between labour, industry and government stakeholders on the appropriate way forward.
By letting this motion go forward the government would supply itself with an excellent spur to move a file forward which members on all sides of the House think should be moved forward. I hope the government has rethought its position over the course of the weekend. This is after all only a motion. If it passes, all the government is obliged to do is consider the advisability of bringing in this system. It would create the context, it would create a little parliamentary momentum.
Last year I had a similar motion on a completely different topic and at the end of my speech I asked for unanimous consent that the motion be put to a vote at the end of the hour. Some may recall it was a motion having to do with the creation of a medal for Dieppe veterans.
The procedure we followed at that time is the one I am suggesting could be done now, that we could decide now that the motion would come to a vote. People could speak to the motion and at the end of the hour we could allow it to pass.
With that precedent in mind, knowing this is procedurally possible and that firefighters were here not so long ago reporting that no one disagreed with this suggestion, I seek unanimous consent.