October 10, 1996 (35th Parliament, 2nd Session)


Rey D. Pagtakhan


Mr. Rey D. Pagtakhan (Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I join the debate on the motion before us which asks the House to advise the Minister of Transport to proceed rapidly to establish a Canadian test site for Operation Respond, a computerized data base of hazardous materials that would improve the safety for firefighters and help save lives and property.
That we are debating this motion during fire prevention week is a happy happenstance. I take this opportunity to salute the courageous staff and volunteers of 4,061 fire departments across Canada for their dedication and service that helps secure the safety of Canadians and their properties. They have done a most laudable job.
Yearly there are approximately 27 million shipments of dangerous goods, for a total weight of 2 billion tonnes. Yet less than 0.002 per cent of these shipments are involved in an emergency where people, property and/or the environment is threatened while waiting for an effective response.
Canadians can take pride in our existing legislation. The Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, together with Canada's dangerous goods program, is the basis for this strikingly small percentage of accidents involving the release of hazardous materials.
We continue to want to do better. We would like to reduce this already small percentage of accidents to an irreducible minimum and so we must continue to search for a better tool, a better system where one exists.
Earlier the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health spoke about the twin goals of Canada's dangerous goods program, to prevent an accidental release of hazardous materials during transport and to ensure an adequate response is at hand should there be such an accident.
It is in continuing vigilance for the latter goal that Canada has had in place since 1979 a comprehensive national emergency response service called CANUTEC, short for Canada urgence en transport emergency centre.
This emergency centre is nationwide in scope and it is operated by Transport Canada 24 hours a day every day of the year, giving valuable information and communication service to emergency responders, including our fire fighters, ambulance personnel and police forces. It is staffed by professionals, trained in accident situations who can provide immediate advice on chemical, physical and toxicological properties of dangerous goods, on health hazards and first aid, fire, explosion, spill or leak hazards, remedial actions for the protection of life, property and the environment, evacuation distances, and personal protection clothing.
Federal regulations require that CANUTEC must be contacted in the event of an accident or incident involving radioactive materials or infectious substances.
To ensure its high quality service keeps with the times, CANUTEC scientists research and investigate developments in emergency technologies and new information regarding dangerous goods. Joint international research projects are developed and undertaken.
I am pleased to inform the House that in keeping with its commitment to high quality service, officials from Transport Canada have been observing the implementation of Operation Respond at the Buffalo test site in Texas, including the ones held as recently as last month.
Let me share some of these observations. It requires a lot of co-ordination between various emergency services, police, fire and ambulance services. It could not substitute for the lack of familiarity of emergency responders with dangerous goods response procedures. One county was cited as an example. The communication equipment did not make it easy for one service from one county to talk to a different county with a different service.
Most road carriers do not have computerized data banks showing in real time the content of their vehicles. Operation Respond had to negotiate with trucking firms so that they could gain access to companies' data banks through a modem necessitating the need for compatibility of the systems.
Operation Respond works better on the rail side of transportation. Operation Respond was not able to provide information on the type of protective clothing required for a test situation. Operation Respond could not give the on-scene commander answer to the question of how he could determine whether to evacuate an industrial plant to which smoke from the accident was drifting toward. This latter observation, I might note, would have been addressed by Canada's CANUTEC service had the accident happened in Canada.
But my purpose in sharing these observations is not to criticize. Far from it. No system is ever perfect. Operation Respond trials only made some of its weaknesses visible. They will have to be solved for any safety program to work, Operation Respond or any other program.
I would like to go one step further and respectfully submit that a careful comparative study of the capabilities of the two systems, Operation Respond versus CANUTEC, in Canadian or American sites or both, may well be the approach to take, were we to find the better system which I alluded to earlier in my debate. I support the continued search for a better system. This search should be done with speed.
Our firefighters and our emergency responders deserve our respect, our help and our support. They are the Canadian public's first line of defence in the event of an accident. We in the House have a duty to provide them with all the information they need to protect the public and themselves. We shall provide them with the tools necessary to achieve this goal.
We must have the foresight and the imagination to envisage new uses for new technologies in a way which will help our firefighters and all other emergency responders.
Operation Respond certainly opens new horizons. Hence we must continue to monitor it and to test it. We should examine the feasibility of allowing the American company, Operation Respond Institute Incorporated, should it wish, to conduct a Canadian test site. Conceivably, this may be a joint international effort.
While we must also display the reserve that keeps us from jumping on the bandwagon that in the end may lead us away from our real goals, we must not hesitate to accept a tool when after thorough research it is demonstrated to be better and which will make our country safer for all.
Having had some background in the clinical trials of drugs, in clinical research, I know that one treatment 15 years ago was deemed to be the best in North America but 15 years later it was shown to be not so. We must listen carefully and examine all data carefully. We must not jump on the bandwagon, but at the same time we must not hesitate to move and move with speed if it can be demonstrated that possibilities for a better system exist out there.
Our ultimate goal is a safer country for all citizens, including emergency responders at the scene of an accident, particularly when the accident involves hazardous materials.
I would like to reiterate the concept that when we are presented with the opportunity of a new and better system, we must not detract from examining that system. Of course, when we examine a system, costs will be involved but we must equate the costs to the real benefits that will ensue. We have to measure that against the lives that will be saved, against the properties that will be lost and against the environment that will be threatened for eternity.
I congratulate the hon. member for Burnaby-Kingsway for taking this particular initiative. We must examine it with great care, for a better system demands great care in handling it. We cannot conclude that it is best when at the same time we say that we must test it. The very essence of testing a particular system tells us that we have not yet made the final conclusion on the quality of the particular system. And so I submit that we must look at this with a very positive mind because what is at stake are the lives and property of Canadians.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Hazardous Materials
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