Quebec’s Transport Ministry is getting much of the blame for the fiasco on Highway 13 that left hundreds stranded during a snowstorm in March.
Released Friday by public policy consultant Florent Gagné, the report also criticizes the Sureté du Quebec for not being able to use all means at their disposal to help people who were trapped in their cars overnight on March 14 after three trucks jackknifed on the snowy highway.
"There were not enough personnel, there were no bosses there, the computers were not workling properly, the patrollers on the road were not feeding the centre as they usually do," said Gagné.
The report slams the two agencies for a “total failure” in communication and “serious organizational deficiencies” as 40 centimetres of snow fell on the city that night.
"Neither the transport ministry’s integrated traffic centre nor the SQ have been able, despite all the means at their disposal, to quickly collect and disseminate full and precise information on the precarious situation that developed on Highway 13 that evening,” said Gagné in a Friday news statement, adding that there was a preoccupation with plowing instead of in getting the stranded people to safety.
"Even more seriously,” he continued, “in both organizations, managers did not take control of a problem that far exceeded the capacities and authority of people directly on the ground who, for all intents and purposes, were left to their own devices."
Gagné said officers on the ground were not able to communicate effectively with their superiors, blaming no one single person, but rather the processes in place.
"It's not an excuse because they have to do their job even when it is difficult," said Gagné.
Patrollers from Transport Quebec and SQ officers failed to recognize that hundreds of people were stuck on Highway 13.
When they did start to realize the extent of the problem, that information was not passed along to their superiors.
Marlene Berman, one of the hundreds stranded, has filed a request for a class action lawsuit.
"The whole basis of shoulda, woulda, coulda is the foundation of their incompetence," said Berman.
"It's unacceptable in Quebec and Canada where we deal with snow on a regular basis that nobody knew what to do. And to plead mea culpa or 'who's on first' and 'it wasn't me and this guy was there,' I mean, come on."
Gagné referred to communications between those in charge as a “total failure,” adding that there was “a major organizational flaw in the monitoring and warning process in place at the transport ministry and also at the SQ."
The report also shows that, apart from the main findings, a number of factors combined to produce a situation that became catastrophic that night.
It does not, however, single out any individual for the fiasco.
Gagné found no fault with the plowing company contracted to do the work that night – a company that is still under contract for the coming winter – though he did recommend that perhaps more frequent plowing is required.
The report is offering 28 recommendations, most of which aim at strengthening the capacity of both organizations to mobilize when an emergency takes place.
“They have to upgrade their system, they have to practice. They have to have training and education on the system. But that night, it didn’t work. It didn’t work vertically and it didn’t work horizontally. The information was stuck in one place and it never came out of the centre,” he said in a news conference.
Gagné said he believed Transport Quebec and the SQ are both capable of making the necessary corrections.
The SQ has not commented on the report, but Montreal police said they are taking action by opening a new operational coordination centre.
That centre is open 24 hours a day and officers must report in during emergencies.
Interval investigations at the SQ and the Transport Ministry continue.