Industrial Saint John lacks centralized emergency plan, fire chief says

If any small city needs a cutting-edge emergency management plan, it's Saint John, home to Canada's largest oil refinery, a liquefied natural gas terminal, natural gas pipelines and rail lines that haul an assortment of industrial cargo.

No other city has the variety of industry Saint John has, says Chief Kevin Clifford of the Saint John Fire Department and head of the local Emergency Management Organization.

Clifford wants to approach local industry heads to improve plans for responding to disasters and to make sure the fire department gets a bigger role managing those plans.

"This isn't about finding fault," Clifford said in an interview. "It's about moving forward."

An array of potential emergencies

Saint John responders have to be prepared for more emergency situations than are found in some larger cities in the country, he said.

"We're not a large community population-wise, but we certainly have a very diverse risk profile."

Now, when an emergency call comes into the fire department, plans are in place to handle the situation, Clifford said. But not all plans or safety protocols are centralized at the department.

And the responsibility for creating emergency response plans has always fallen to individual companies.

Clifford wants to bring in a program called Community Awareness Emergency Response that would give the fire department a bigger role designing and maintaining plans for all the different types of industry in the city.

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"The notion of aligning all those response plans through us, the notion of integrating all these stakeholder response plans being held, managed, scheduled, supported, the notion it would all come from the local emergency services —  this is not an update of where we were. It's a vision of where we believe we should be going."

Clifford said the city and the department are prepared for industrial emergencies, but he wants to see an evolution of its safety approach across the industrial sector.

Industries enveloped by city

The Community Awareness Emergency Response, which the fire department calls CAER, is designed to build a stronger relationship between responders and the industries that the sprawling city has grown around.

While the department and the industrial sector of Saint John have always had positive relations, Clifford said the notion that the fire department would develop emergency plans for an industry "is all new."

Business leaders would qualify for different levels of involvement with the program, but there would be "collaboration, as opposed to isolation" in developing emergency response plans.

Clifford also said he would like to see computer technology that would keep all plans in one location and updated in real time as protocols or the environment changed.

"When information relating to that plan changes, it changes the plan."

Can't miss the industry

Coun. Gerry Lowe said the department's proposal is a step in the right direction.

"Stand in the middle of Saint John and notice the rail cars," he said. "Live on the west side and you see oil cars going by. You have Lepreau down there.

"Everyone in Saint John knows we're surrounded by industry."

In addition to the refinery and LNG terminal, Saint John has a pulp, paper and tissue manufacturing industry, two large-scale thermal generation plants and Canada's third most active marine port by tonnage, Clifford says in information to be presented to common council.

Saint John also has neighbourhoods of tightly knit heritage buildings and natural gas lines running through the middle of the city, he said.

Used for training

Because fire crews are exposed to so much in Saint John, Clifford said, the city is the perfect place to train and design emergency response programs.

"We believe we have the capability, can navigate and present an emergency management strategy structure for any of the hazards in our community and we believe we should be the holders of that library of plans," he said.

A representative will head to council on Tuesday night to formally ask permission to approach these industry leaders.

Lowe expects Clifford will easily gain permission.

"I'm excited by it," Clifford said. "I really am."