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Crews search through the debris near the area where a popular bar once stood in downtown Lac-Mégantic. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Crews search through the debris near the area where a popular bar once stood in downtown Lac-Mégantic. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Walter Perchal

When will Canadians stop reacting to disasters and start preventing them? Add to ...

Beyond being a terrible tragedy, the events at Lac-Mégantic are also a warning of things to come. For the events themselves we will need to wait for the investigations to run their course and make their recommendations. However, there is a larger lesson to be learned.

Put simply, for each day we move forward into the twenty-first century, we concurrently move into greater technological dependency and complexity. All the while we do this within a context of legacy systems, dated technologies and aging critical infrastructure.

The gap that defines the interface between our dependencies and our responses is growing. Accordingly, the probability of more failure and more severe events is increasing.

There are two ways that we can meet this reality. The first is as we do now, reactively. That is, rather than building on lessons learned, rather than rethinking obsolete risk models, rather than constantly upgrading our infrastructures, we continue to respond after the fact. Here, in the context of tragedy, I note with interest that there is no lack of promised commitment with respect to money, technology, or, legislation.

The second response is to rethink something that, except in the context of tragedy, has little interest or traction in the course of our daily lives. Without this context, few are interested in takeing ownership of the lessons that should have been learned, or in making those changes that should have been enacted to prevent these very same tragedies.

We need to take away from this event the urgent need to be proactive. Here we commit our expertise to addressing the growing gap noted above. Here we direct our expertise to anticipating and mitigating. Here we need to spend dollars before the fact to improve and address changes that will prevent or mitigate more accidents waiting to happen.

The cost of this latter approach is certainly cheaper in dollars than cleaning up after the fact. Far more importantly, not only would this reduce our risks, it would save lives.

Walter Perchal is on the faculty of the department of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University.

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