What does an emergency siren mean?

Sarah Wiebe and Mckay Swanson in The Observer

On Thursday morning we arrived at Coffee Culture, a local gathering place, to greet a group of startled community advisors for a meeting on research and everyday life in Chemical Valley. Minutes prior to our 10 a.m. meeting, the sounds of the Chemical Valley sirens accompanied our companions as they arrived to the coffee shop. Lasting no longer than a minute, the sirens did little more than to raise alarm, as limited information was released on the news about the severity of this “Code 8” (non)emergency, with no known offsite impact from the apparent toxic flash vapour release at Imperial Oil.

We looked out the window of the coffee shop to see black plume spewing into the sky, grazing above a large, orange flare. Fitting, we thought, to be discussing how living in a state of alarm affects people residing in close proximity to Canada’s Chemical Valley, an industrial zone known for the highest concentration of chemical plants in Canada. Each of us was affected by the context in which we were meeting. The off site impacts were certainly felt during our meeting, as we discussed the uncertainty surrounding these normalized, routinized experiences, and the automated conditioned response by the seemingly uncoordinated “Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinated Organization”. What is a Code 8 again? We looked at each other perplexed.

We discussed how the sound of the sirens are commonplace. Many barely flinch when the sirens sound. Determining between a real and non-emergency is a perpetual puzzle. This “Code 8” (non) emergency is the second in just a week. Last Friday it was a BP crude oil release, today it was flash vapour, injuring one plant worker with severe burns to the forehead who was treated off site, while several other workers were exposed to “unknown chemicals” and evaluated onsite. As an immediate response, neighbouring facilities Lanxess and Nova issued “voluntary” precautionary shelter in places. While these workers remained indoors during the morning confusion, residents of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, situated across the street from these plants, expressed concern, fear, and frustration about the lack of information coming from the plants and emergency preparedness authorities responsible for coordinating effective and realistic responses to such releases. Where can you turn when your home is in the middle of it all?

Local news informed citizens of Chemical Valley that they may notice strange odours and excess flaring for a period of time. Jon Harding, spokesperson for Imperial Oil, stated from Calgary that citizens should rest assured, the company would continue to monitor its air both on and off site. Moreover, he went on to say that safety is important; and, regarding the sirens: “they sounded”. What’s clear is that hearing the sirens sound is not the issue, it is rather a question of information dissemination. There is a need for better knowledge about what the sirens are an indication of, what the various codes mean, and how one should react. In this murky state of (non) emergency, citizens are truly on alert, and they bear the burden of responsibility for determining what is going on and how to react. Individuals in St. Clair Township, a municipality adjacent to Sarnia will even soon be provided with emergency warning devices should there be a leak, spill or severe weather condition in the Valley. It is in this ambiguous state of uncertainty about the unknowns -chemicals, exposures and effects -that fear is, and will continue to be a real off site impact.

It is offensive and perplexing that emergency responders and officials in the Valley continue to refer to “no offsite impact”. Can a chainlink fence really stop the anxiety resulting from chemical exposures in the air, soil and water surrounding someone’s work and home? Imperial may have issued an “all clear” an hour after the siren sounded, but what is truly clear is that there is limited knowledge shared about the impacts of so many “unknowns” on people’s lives. Living in this state is a tangible experience that continues to be discredited. The time is now for citizens to demand better emergency prevention, planning and response from their industrial neighbours.

Sarah Wiebe (PhD Candidate, University of Ottawa) and Mckay Swanson (Chairperson, Young People’s Council Within Aamjiwnaang)

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One response to “What does an emergency siren mean?

  1. Kerry-Anne Hudgins

    I have Been working in them Chem Valley for a few years now as an inspector. I have worked in a few different cities around Canada as a contractor in and out of different plants. The one thing we should look at as a country should be making the alerts the same tone all threw Canada. All fire alarms should be the same sound at all plants/factories, as well as TVRP (toxic release), radiation alerts, etc. This way workers and residents can be aware of what is happening and no one can be confused.

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