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GUEST COLUMN: Sirens and secrecy have replaced community awareness

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Allen R. Wells

In a recent Sarnia Journal article, comments from CAER stating that “the whole [emergency notification] system was originally meant for first responders” and “there are no plans to change the system” are misleading.

The whole system was NOT meant for first responders and there SHOULD BE plans to change.

On May 6, 1951 an explosion rocked the then Polymer Corporation of Sarnia plant. Heard all over Lambton County, it could be seen 130 miles into Michigan. Television was not then broadcast by the CBC. For entertainment, Sarnians drove to the Chemical Valley, leaning against the fence, smoking, unaware of the dangers.

The next day, the Chemical Valley Traffic Control Committee was formed to protect residents. It was NOT formed for First Responders. Subsequently came the Chemical Valley Emergency Control Committee (which DID largely involve first responders but recognized the primary importance of community, not first responder involvement).

In response to the huge loss of life in Bhopal, India, (December 2-3, 1984) the world evaluated community (not industrial) preparedness. Sarnia, with 33 years’ experience, was one of only three communities in all of Canada which met the new standards of integrated Community Awareness and Emergency Response.

Sarnians travelled the world educating other countries.

Representatives from every continent came to Sarnia to learn from us. A delegation from Bhopal, itself, came here to judge their own progress.

Sarnia’s industries were guided locally, then. Some of those leaders – Walter Petryschuk and Firman Bentley come quickly to mind – are still here, making Sarnia a better place. Still, sirens and secrecy have replaced vigorous Community Awareness promotion.

Community awareness, all over Canada, has similarly faded. Local leadership – not in terms of the Lambton Industrial Society (administered with excellence by Dean Edwardson) but of CAER, has effectively disappeared. Cal Gardner of the Sarnia Police Service does his best and Mark Wetering works in the county. They are hobbled by an Ontario government Ministry that understands forest fires, endless report forms and little else. Sarnians would be very well informed, if the available resources from CAER were drawn to their attention.

The great chemical disasters of the world were vastly compounded by a lack of understanding and preparedness. When large numbers are vomiting blood or exposing themselves to cancer-causing benzene is not a choice time to raise the subject of readiness. Slowly dying in a traffic jam is not a good choice. It is not a necessary choice. It is the last choice many will make.

If Community Awareness is not striven for, every day, Sarnia will be a topic of news in surviving communities around the world. All the Emergency Response imaginable will be of no avail to citizens who are needlessly, but irrevocably, dead.

Allen R. Wells is the former administrator of CAER (Community Awareness Emergency Response) from 1989 to 2001.



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