The devastation caused by the runaway train that exploded in Lac-Mégantic is almost unimaginable – almost, but not quite. And that “not quite” is giving us nightmares.
Could the same thing happen here? Perhaps not the identical scenario, since trains are largely a thing of the past in this area, but anyone who knows their hazardous products symbols and watches transport trucks going through town understands the potential for a disaster with disturbing similarities.
We might well wonder what would happen if a truck carrying a highly explosive substance were involved in a collision in the middle of one of the many towns that line Highway, 86 or 23. That truck, after all, shares the road with everything from school buses to large pieces of farm machinery to lunatics who think they can drink, text and pass on a hill at the same time.
We wonder if the government officials responsible for ensuring the safe operation of that train or truck are doing their job, or if there are corners and budgets being cut that put our community at risk. We have reason to look closely. Although the investigation into the fiery train wreck in Lac-Mégantic is in its early stages, questions are already being asked about a change in government regulations that allowed the train to run with only one engineer instead of two.
Imagining the worst can jolt us awake, dripping in sweat and heart pounding, but ironically, it can also help ease our fears. Playing “what if” is a vital part of emergency planning.
The fact is, when a runaway train explodes in the middle of town, or a tornado touches down, there is no time to plan anything. By the time emergency responders are called, they are faced with a full-blown disaster, and they have to be confident their advance planning will serve the community well.
Recently, emergency services in Huron County joined forces with the MedQUEST program to conduct a mock disaster that involved multiple casualties and a lot of complications. What if… a group of young athletes were in a conservation park when a tornado hit? What if… the process of rescuing them were complicated by downed trees and hydro lines? What if… the same storm caused other damage in the area, necessitating diverting resources?
Totally unrealistic? The answer can be summed up in two words: Goderich and Durham.
At the end of the exercise, the injuries washed off and everyone sat down to enjoy lunch and discuss lessons learned. But at the height of the “emergency” it felt real. It looked real. And when – not if – there is a real emergency, our emergency responders will most certainly be better prepared.
We all might take a lesson from this and do a bit of emergency planning on a personal or family level. What if… emergency responders were delayed in getting to us? What could we do to help ourselves?
If an explosion in our neighbourhood forced us to flee for dear life, would we have plans in place that would help us survive and cope with the aftermath?
It might seem silly to hold a fire drill at home or the office, or for a group of neighbours to discuss what they would do in a community emergency, but a few minutes of silliness seems a small price to pay for saving a life. The old line, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” is never more true than in disasters.
Of course, it is much easier to prevent something from going wrong than to clean up the mess after it does. We cannot control a tornado, but we can lobby for changes to other things that could endanger our community – a treacherous stretch of road, cutbacks in a government food inspection program, or a product we feel is unsafe.
One of the infuriating things about the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy is everyone seems to be pointing fingers at everyone else in an effort to avoid admitting responsibility. Perhaps if more people had been willing to take responsibility for the safety of that community, 60 people might still be alive. This includes the company that owned the train, the governments that enacted and enforced the regulations under which it operated, and assorted individuals involved in the tragedy.
At this point, the focus should not be on who to blame for the crash – there will be time for that later – but in stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility for helping this devastated community recover.