That in the opinion of this House, the Minister of Transport should proceed rapidly to establish a Canadian test site for Operation Respond, a computerized database of hazardous materials that would improve safety for firefighters and help save lives and property.
Mr. Speaker, since 1991 firefighters and other emergency responders have been seeking the establishment of a Canadian demonstration site for Operation Respond, a computerized North American emergency response information system which enables firefighters to obtain accurate instant information at the scene of a hazardous materials incident. I would note as well that Operation Respond can also be applied to passenger rail traffic.
Over the years firefighters and other emergency responders have received significant support from members on all sides of the House in their demand for speedy action on Operation Respond.
I would like to take the opportunity today to acknowledge the support of members on all sides of the House from the Liberal caucus, les deputés du Bloc québécois, members of the Reform Party and members of the Conservative Party.
Yesterday I spoke with half the members of the Conservative caucus, the member for Saint John, and she indicated her strong and ongoing support for this motion.
I also want to thank all the members who have written or telephoned to indicate their support of the motion even though some are not able to be present in the House for this first day of debate.
Members will also understand that I want to pay a special tribute and say a special word of thanks to my own colleagues who have been so vigorously supporting these changes over the years, my colleague for The Battlefords-Meadow Lake who seconded the motion today and all of my other colleagues who joined in seconding the motion now before the House. I would particularly note the member for Winnipeg-Transcona who has been a solid supporter of this. In fact, in June 1995 he brought a motion before the House also under Private Members' Business urging the government to move forward on this very important initiative.
As long ago as 1992 colleagues such as Ian Angus from Thunder Bay and Joy Langan from Mission-Coquitlan spoke out in support of these changes. The people who have really been on the frontlines in this long campaign are the firefighters themselves, the International Association of Firefighters and firefighters across Canada.
From my community the Canadian vice-president Terry Ritchie; Mark Fletcher, the president of local 323; the Burnaby local of the IAFF and Robert Hall of Vancouver local 18, have been particularly helpful in this. I might add that they have noted some of the particular concerns in the lower mainland. As a port city, Vancouver has had more than its share of hazardous materials incidents and
the amount of traffic that passes through our ports and our streets continues to escalate very significantly.
All transportation corridors to the lower mainland run through Burnaby whether it is roadways, railways, airways or marine ways. In fact all hazardous materials that are shipped into Vancouver via trucks are transported along highways which travel through Burnaby. The major rail carriers all travel through Burnaby. Four of the six petrochemical wharves in the GVRD, the Greater Vancouver Regional District, are also located in Burnaby.
The Burnaby firefighters have noted that the current system, the CANUTEC system which has been in place since 1979, works well when firefighters know specifically with what they are dealing. The problem is not knowing what chemicals, what other hazardous materials are being dealt with. As noted by Mark Fletcher in his letter to me: "Often valuable time is lost and great risks are taken in trying to make that determination. A computerized tracking system would alert us to the fact when rail cars or tanker trucks were carrying mixed loads because of course chemicals which are relatively harmless on their own can in fact become extremely dangerous if they are mixed in with other chemicals".
Operation Respond has the potential to save many lives in the city of Burnaby, the lives of the members of our fire department but also the lives of citizens in that community. The system would enable firefighters to stay in a safe zone away from a hazardous materials incident and not have to take proactive measures until they know what they are dealing with and until they can proceed in a safe manner.
I want to acknowledge the leadership on this issue of the Canadian director of the International Association of Firefighters, Doug Coupar, who has done such an outstanding job of making members and others aware of the importance of this issue and the importance of moving quickly on this issue.
I want to add a special word of thanks to my assistant Catherine Meaden who has done such a fine job as well in helping to prepare this important debate.
The objective of this motion is straightforward.
It is to establish a test site for Operation Respond, a computerized database of hazardous materials that would improve safety for firefighters and help save lives and property.
By way of background I would note that the most dangerous aspect of firefighting is responding to incidents that involve hazardous materials or HAZMAT as they are known. Firefighters in Canada are especially hampered by the lack of information available in such incidents, especially within the critical first few minutes after arriving on the scene. What is absolutely essential is accurate, accessible information. This is crucial to saving lives and property at the scene of these accidents. The appropriate response for one hazardous material could prove quite catastrophic or very dangerous if another substance is present.
There is a whole gamut of advanced technological systems that would allow firefighters to know exactly the nature of hazardous materials to which they are exposed, and to get the advice they need to react. These systems may be designed for the processing of hazardous materials at a given site, and for those transported by train, aircraft, truck or boat.
The information provided by these systems not only aids in identifying what hazardous materials are present but it can also offer detailed information on the appropriate emergency response techniques. In some cases it can provide guidance on evacuating specific communities.
Implementation of a hazardous materials identification system would ensure that firefighters have the information they need to effectively respond to any incident enabling them to protect lives and property. Surely firefighters have the right to know precisely what hazardous materials may be present. They have the right to know that immediately. They should not have to wait minutes or in some cases hours to get that vital information.
In the case of passenger rail emergencies, Operation Respond will make it easier for firefighters to save lives by knowing entry points, electrical and mechanical systems and bypass advice.
Members of the House will perhaps have noted an ad that was placed in this week's issue of the Hill Times newspaper. In this ad it is pointed out that courier packages are readily traceable across Canada, indeed around the world. That technology exists, but Canada's firefighters do not have access to the same modern and latest technology to identify potentially hazardous materials. It is essential that we make this change and it is essential that we make it now.
There are many examples of the urgency of this system. Members will recall the Mississauga train derailment in 1979. The train was carrying chlorine gas and 24 cars of the train derailed. Two propane filled cars exploded into a huge fireball of chlorine gas. Many residents were forced to evacuate their homes.
I know that the member for Mississauga West, who strongly supports this motion by the way, remembers vividly that particular incident. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, the member for Hamilton West, who has also indicated previously his support for this motion, recalls well the Mississauga
incident. In fact as a young television reporter from Hamilton he was assigned to cover that tragedy.
In circumstances such as that it is absolutely essential that firefighters have access at the earliest possible time with the latest technology to know precisely with what materials they are dealing.
There are many other examples. In the small town of Linwood in Ontario was a burning vehicle, a urethane spray truck. Firefighters attended the scene. They were not able to identify a placard, which of course we are told should be available. One of the firefighters was able to obtain the driver's manifest and the load sheet and determined from that what dangerous chemicals were on board. They consulted with CANUTEC and were told to stop their suppression efforts. In fact those suppression efforts could have been dangerous to the firefighters in question.
There was a rural Manitoba accident where firefighters had to wait 13 hours to determine the contents of a derailed train. Finally they used binoculars to obtain an identification number.
Another incident was on the northern bank of the Eramosa River in Guelph outside the Huntsman chemical plant earlier this year. The Guelph fire department was called. It was a chaotic scene, a spill of some 56,000 litres of the liquid chemical phenyl which was being unloaded into a storage tank. It is very toxic and very flammable and burns on contact. The firefighters were hampered because they were not able to get the information they needed when they needed it. They waited two hours before they were finally able to obtain that information.
It is not good enough to rely on the CANUTEC system which is currently in place. Operation Respond uses a unique number which is clearly identified, clearly displayed, not just in one place but on all load containers and in a variety of different locations.
It is essential that we move ahead. It is essential that the transport minister make the Operation Respond Canadian test site a top priority for his department and that he commit the necessary staff and resources to do that.
The House might ask why is it that Canada has not already moved to test Operation Respond? Transport Canada tells us that the current CANUTEC system needs no improvement. There are too many examples of CANUTEC not working effectively. Delay, manual use of a telephone, are simply not acceptable, especially when computer technology exists. They say there have been no direct casualties from incidents. So far we have been fortunate.
What about a major catastrophe in downtown Toronto, for example? Would CANUTEC act quickly enough to prevent casualties? There is a very serious question about that.
The CANUTEC system and those who defend it alone also fail to account for those who have been exposed to contamination, the inconvenience of unnecessary evacuation or the loss of property which might have been preventable.
Transport Canada tries to say, as well, that it will cost too much. We hear astronomical estimates which are in the millions of dollars. That is absolute nonsense. We are not talking about scrapping CANUTEC and starting out with an entirely new system. We are talking about building on CANUTEC, strengthening and improving the CANUTEC system to ensure that it uses the latest in computer technology.
I would note that, in fact, the majority of professional fire departments already have the necessary equipment to operate the system.
Operation Respond is a non-profit entity. It is already in place in the United States in many locations and its people are quite prepared to co-operate to get this under way in Canada. In fact, today we received tentative cost estimates from Operation Respond. They say it would be in the order of $40,000 to $50,000. If we wanted to add passenger rail to that it might bump the cost up to $65,000 or $70,000. That is all we are talking about. Surely there is not a member in the House who would not agree that this is a small price to pay to enhance the safety and the security of Canadian firefighters and Canadian communities.
The key point is very straightforward. Firefighters want direct, on screen access via laptop computer when they are in the critical first stages of identification. The CANUTEC system does not provide this. Right now firefighters have to go through a CANUTEC middleman by telephone, even though most professional fire departments already have computers and modems.
Let us augment and improve the CANUTEC system. Let us work together with major carriers who have indicated they are prepared to co-operate. Let us make sure that Transport Canada is not just sitting on the sidelines observing. Let us make sure that it is the major player in this very important process.
This motion has support, not just from firefighters and many communities across Canada, but from other emergency responders. The Canadian Police Association, for example, has written me a letter in which it says that the Canadian Police Association, representing approximately 40,000 frontline police officers, supports any additional tool, such as the motion proposes, which will facilitate the safe storage, handling and shipping of hazardous material within Canada.
The United Transportation Union, which represents more than 8,000 rail and bus transportation industry employees, is in total support of Operation Respond in its efforts to provide first responders with on site, up to the minute, safe and reliable hazard information. UTU members are all too familiar with the dangers of incidents involving hazardous materials. As railway employees they have experienced hazardous material incidents. They say that the CANUTEC system leaves unquantifiable reasons for which Operation Respond should be implemented immediately.
Imagine being put on hold for upwards of three hours while trying to access needed information. That is just not acceptable.
I urge all members of the House to support this motion. I ask the Standing Committee on Transport to hold hearings. That committee is chaired by the hon. member for Winnipeg South. That member was not able to be here today for this debate. However, I spoke to him and he indicated his strong support for this motion. I am very pleased that he also indicated that he is prepared to encourage and to support hearings of the Standing Committee on Transport on this motion.
Firefighters and other emergency responders from across Canada are going to be watching this debate very carefully and will be watching the outcome of the debate. I am concerned about any attempt by any member of the House, particularly on the government side, to water down or amend this motion to suggest that we should study it, examine it or observe it. The time is long overdue to implement a test site. We do not need any more observation. We do not need any more study.
It is fitting that this week Canadians are observing Fire Prevention Week. Two days from now, Saturday, October 12, is Fire Service Recognition Day.
When the Minister of Labour spoke earlier this week about this day, he noted that our full time and volunteer firefighters often put their own lives in danger in order to save other lives. He said: "We want to use this day to express our appreciation and gratitude to all firefighters across Canada".
In closing, let me say that there could be no more fitting tribute to the dedication and commitment of firefighters and other emergency responders in Canada than passing this motion and establishing a Canadian test site for Operation Respond to improve the safety of firefighters and to help save lives and property.