Harrison Ruess: Sitting through another Canadian emergency planning flop
Our emergency services need to be better able to competently manage and communicate about emergencies.
By: Harrison Ruess
It’s (semi) northern Ontario, 20 kilometres east of a small, pleasant town called Mattawa. It’s a beautiful sunset. The Ottawa River isn’t far away. There’s a group of teenagers a short way over with an acoustic guitar, doing a good job singing some classic rock tunes (“they’re too young to know these songs,” my wife observes aloud). We snack on a couple fresh, sweet cherries. We go for a walk, chatting with some of our new neighbours along the way. It’s deep enough into July now that even the bugs aren’t that bad.
You’d be forgiven, after reading that description, if you thought I was enjoying a nice weekend camping at a park … Alas, I long for that to be true.
What was actually happening is that the Trans-Canada Highway, also known as Highway 17 in this area, was completely closed. When we arrived on the scene during the 7 p.m. hour, the highway had been closed since a serious noon-hour collision. We found ourselves in a kilometres-long line of cars, vans, campers and transport trucks, all stuck, single-file on this two-lane highway. We were on our way from Ottawa to North Bay. Many (many!) more and more cars and trucks arrived on the scene behind us over the next couple hours.
The Ontario Provincial Police tweeted (Xeeted?) that the highway would reopen in two hours, though two hours came and went, and users (yours truly included) who replied to the OPP asking for updates, were dutifully ignored by ^ks.
Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) 511 information website provided information updates once every few hours that the highway was closed (yep, sure is), though at no point had any information about when it would reopen.
Such was the debacle that even Google Maps — which is usually the most useful of the three sources referenced here (which should be red flag of its own for government) — couldn’t properly make sense of why hundreds (thousands?) of people were parked on the highway and milling about. It showed a heavy red area and a +2 minute (!?) congestion delay.
In wandering around the area and chatting with others who were similarly in the dark about the current situation (beyond the obvious, “we’ve been stuck for hours,” and, “they said it would open in two hours, two hours ago,”) there were rumors of a logging road some people used to escape. Though equally it was two kilometers further up the highway, through the solid line of cars. It also came with a warning, not unsurprisingly since it was an old logging road, that part of the “road” was actually a marsh. One gentleman said he had tried earlier in the day — he had been trapped since mid-afternoon — though had to turn back since his car couldn’t navigate the terrain. Testing out our sedan’s capabilities as a boat didn’t seem like a great way to spend the evening.
The other detour options were not entirely useful: either backtrack and go south, for 473km and five hours along bigger roads in Ontario. Or backtrack and go north, for 322km and five and a half hours along smaller roads in Quebec. We made the decision that sitting and waiting — given the promise of it reopening “in two hours,” even though that now close to three hours ago, seemed like it would be wiser.
As it happens, the aforementioned musical college kids also had a drone. They flew it up as high as it could go, and they reported seeing the line of trapped vehicles stretching beyond the limits of their line of sight. This was the closest to a real update about the situation anyone could manage. Even truckers, on their CBs talking to colleagues trapped further up the line, and on the opposite side of it, were unable to pass along any information from authorities.
(If this feels reminiscent of Brother Gurney’s passport line experience, I had the same thought.)
In the end our guess that, for us, waiting would be faster than either of the detours proved correct. The highway reopened shortly after 9pm. By the time the queue cleared and we were underway at our point in the line, it had been a further 30 minutes. Our total delay was a little over two hours, which compared to many — especially truckers, whose timed driving limits were now expired and had to park on the shoulder for the night — we were getting off quite easy.
(And, let’s keep in mind: it was a pleasant 25°C evening for my wife and I…Seriously, you couldn’t ask for it to be nicer. But if it had been -25°C, which it regularly is in winter months, this backlog could readily have been deadly. I imagine for folks who had been stuck through the heat of the day, it was also quite a bit worse.)
This tale, while relatively minor in the grand scheme of things — I’m not naïve — is nevertheless getting increasingly representative of our country’s inability to manage situations that impact infrastructure. It should not be conceivable that a minor crisis — even if tragic — such as a traffic collision, can shut down the only direct infrastructure for a region of our province, and country, for such a length of time. Compounded with poor useful communications from authorities, Canadians should be rightly concerned that we have yet another example to add to the pile.
In remembering other situations where emergencies or other issues impacted key infrastructure — such as BC floods, landslides, rail blockades, Atlantic storms, port strikes, and even shoddy construction — a couple points keep coming through.
One is that Canada’s infrastructure network is incredibly thin, especially once you get away from major cities. In a lot of (most?) places in our country, there is literally only one road (and it’s virtually always only two lanes), or one rail line, or one fibre line, or one port (this applies to both air and marine), one electrical corridor, or even one pipeline. This means our country is extremely susceptible to disruptions, since alternate routes simply do not exist. The consequences of this can range from annoying (like for my wife and I tonight), to economically damaging (even a minor emergency like Hwy 17 being closed carries an economic cost — a great many transport trucks and people at work were trapped there with us…to say nothing of more serious closures, like port strikes), and even life threatening (like when heating fuel can’t make it through in the dark of winter).
The answer is, obviously, to build more infrastructure resiliency across our country. And this has to mean building real infrastructure made of steel, asphalt, timber, concrete, or carbon fibre — no nonsense about thoughts and feelings infrastructure from the heart outwards. My fellow Canadians let’s get serious with our governments: Build. Infrastructure. Now.
The second issue that this event makes clear, again, is that our emergency services need to be better able to competently manage and communicate about emergencies. A traffic collision — even a genuinely tragic, serious one — is not uncommon. It should not be considered acceptable for the Trans-Canada to be closed for nine hours to address it.
Whatever went wrong with the OPP or MTO (or both?) in this situation needs to be examined and addressed. Were personnel or equipment too far away to be useful in a timely manner on the ground? Were local services unable to handle the situation? Was the senior communications manager on holidays? Did informative communications or decision-making get delayed by red tape? Was anyone even deployed on the ground with a communications mandate for the kilometres long line of traffic? Were emergency services or investigators unable to reach the site through the backlog of cars and trucks (it is only a two-lane highway)? Were investigators trying to reach the scene coming from too far away?
Answers to these questions should be sought out by Ontario’s Solicitor General (who is responsible for the OPP) and Transport Minister (who is responsible for MTO) and provided to Ontarians. Both Ministers Kerzner (Solicitor General) and Mulroney (Transport) are generally on the ball, so perhaps they are already looking into these questions.
Additionally, I propose a legislative tweak: for any emergency investigation or cleanup where a major piece of transport infrastructure is going to be closed for more than two hours, a provincial Minister of Transportation must 1) personally approve the extended closure; and, 2) within 30 days report to the relevant provincial Legislature a) why the extended closure was necessary; and, b) provide an economic impact assessment of the extended closure. This would, I suspect, cause additional sunlight to shine on the issues surrounding Canada’s lack of infrastructure and emergency preparedness. The resulting attention can only be a good thing if we want to improve on either front.
Our governments today aren’t, generally, to blame for this situation. They inherited the mess as much as any citizen who has to deal with it. But avoiding blame isn’t good enough, and it isn’t really the point.
Our governments today are the only ones who can start to fix this. In a world that is getting increasingly unpredictable and unsettled, combined with lagging economic productivity across our country, it’s hard to imagine something more important the having robust, resilient infrastructure connecting Canada from coast to coast to coast. It’s a fundamental for our governments to start getting ahead of this. It’s time to dig, mend, build, and move forward.
Harrison Ruess is the Senior Account Director at spark*advocacy in Ottawa. He’s also a former senior political staffer in Ottawa.
The Line is entirely reader funded. If you value our work and worry about what will happen when the conventional media finishes collapsing, please make a donation today.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org.