Building relationships and advancing safety, one investigation at a time

By Jean L. Laporte,
Chief Operating Officer, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article was original published in the Fall 2013 bulletin of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

It’s shortly before 1am on a hot summer night. A freight train, left unattended on a main track, begins a long descent toward the quiet town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Picking up speed as it rolls down the grade, the train and its cargo of petroleum crude oil eventually derail, and when several tank cars rupture, a deadly fireball engulfs the downtown core.

Disasters don’t happen on a schedule. That’s why, when the phone rings in the middle of the night, the men and women who work at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada need to be ready to deploy anytime—and anywhere—they’re needed.

For over two decades, TSB experts have investigated thousands of occurrences along our waterways, our pipelines, our railways and in our skies, always with the same goal: to advance safety by finding out what happened, why it happened, and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. Along the way, we’ve worked closely with first responders at accident sites in every province and territory, in major cities and small towns, and plenty of places in between.

Obviously, the police are among the first to arrive on scene, but since not every officer will have heard of the TSB, one of the first things our investigators do is identify themselves to those at the site. We explain our objectives, our processes, our powers under the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board (CTAISB) Act, and how we can all work side by side.

As any experienced first responder will be quick to tell you, on-scene coordination is key, especially when the list of “urgent top priorities” can sometimes seem contradictory. There’s the need to rescue those in harm’s way, along with securing the site and dealing with any hazards such as fire or dangerous goods. But after that, what’s most important can vary depending on individual job descriptions: Preserve the evidence? Protect the environment? Begin impromptu traffic control? Evacuate the area? Deal with the media? Collect witness names and start interviews? Begin returning the site to normal operation?

In addition, accident sites—especially for major accidents—can involve multiple agencies: local, provincial and national. That’s a lot to coordinate, especially when there may be more than one investigation going on at a time. A railway or an airline, for example, may wish to conduct its own internal review of an accident, even as police are determining whether criminal acts have taken place and the coroner is establishing the cause of death of victims.

To make sure we obtain the information we need, the CTAISB Act grants our investigators some important powers. These include the ability to “freeze” a site, restrict access, seize wreckage, compel witness interviews, obtain search warrants, or require a medical examination. That being said, we know how important it is to build relationships; therefore, our investigators rely highly on the three Cs: communicating, consulting, and coordinating. In particular, that means:

  • liaising with on-scene commanders upon arrival to obtain a briefing on the status of the emergency operations;
  • consulting with other agencies involved to ensure the site is inspected and made as safe as possible;
  • deciding which areas of the site will be under TSB authority, and communicating this to those on scene;
  • coordinating TSB activities with those of other investigative bodies; and
  • interviewing police and other first responders.

We’ve also found that it’s important to clarify what the TSB does not do. We don’t assign blame or determine guilt. Neither are we the regulator; we can’t make rules or compel parties to follow them. As such, our findings can’t be used in court, and our witness statements are strictly protected. This also applies to specific recorded information such as on-board voice and video recorders.

The reason for this confidentiality is simple: it helps us do our job better. Witnesses can say what they need, without fear of reprisal or prosecution, so that safety always comes first.

So what does that mean for the men and women who police this vast country, in towns and cities (and in between) from coast to coast to coast? It means that whenever there’s a marine, rail, pipeline or air accident, you may find us on the scene—just like earlier this summer, when we responded to the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic Quebec. We’re there to investigate, and, just like you, our goal is the safety of all Canadians. Hopefully, by being aware of each other and working in harmony, we’ll make sure all those involved get the information they need, when and how they need it, in order to do their respective jobs and keep Canada safe.

The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability. For more information, visit our website at www.bst-tsb.gc.ca.