Tightening Borders Could Slow Emergency Response

By Beacon Staff

Identification requirements for citizens entering or leaving the United States via road will beef up next year, which could delay truckers, tourists and other travelers at border crossings. But in several Montana communities that share fire and ambulance services with towns in Canada, a border-crossing delay during an emergency could have serious consequences.

As a result, fire departments and emergency medical services in Lincoln, Glacier and Toole Counties are taking precautions to ensure that the protocol for border crossings during an emergency happen efficiently.

The concerns of these counties are not unwarranted. In November, two incidents of border delays during emergencies drew wide publicity in the United States and Canada. When the small town of Rouses Point in upstate New York had a fire at a historic inn, a fire crew across the border in Lacolle, Quebec, raced down to help, but was reportedly held up at the border and questioned by a customs official for eight to 15 minutes. Down in New York, the inn burned down.

Less than a week later, an ambulance with a heart attack victim speeding from Windsor, Ontario, down to Detroit for surgery was held up by customs officials, who made ambulance drivers enter their office to produce identification and asked the heart attack victim to verbally confirm his identity.

As a result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), part of increased safety measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, requirements to enter the United States will become more stringent Jan. 31, 2008, when citizens at border crossings will be required to show either a passport or birth certificate plus government issued photo ID, like a driver’s license, naturalization certificate or school ID for younger individuals. By the summer of 2008, a passport or electronic border crossing ID card will be required to enter the United States.

The Canadian government has publicly supported the objectives of the WHTI, but expressed concern that long waits at border crossings could hinder tourism and travel.

“Canada, like the United States, shares the concern for a secure and safe border,” said Dale Eisler, consul general at the Consulate General of Canada in Denver. “But in terms of achieving that objective, we want to make sure that we have border arrangements in place that allow first responders to be able to travel back and forth quickly.”

When the federal government enacts ID changes at crossings, they will intersect with a patchwork of local partnerships between neighbors in Montana and Canada. The Eureka Volunteer Fire Department has 20 contracts to protect homes in Canada within 10 miles of the border, according to John Livingston, president of the department’s board of directors. When called to those Canadian homes, Eureka fire crews must pass through the port of entry at Roosville.

When Eureka fire officials heard about the new ID requirements, they held off from re-signing fire protection contracts with the Canadian homeowners, until they met with U.S. and Canadian port officials about emergency border crossings.

“They assure me there won’t be any problem; as it stands we are in good shape,” Livingston said.

With those assurances, the Eureka department re-signed its contracts with Canadian homeowners.

In Glacier County, EMS Chief James Laidlaw has a four-person volunteer ambulance crew in Babb that brings individuals up to the hospital in Cardston, Alberta, as many as a dozen times a year through the port at Piegan.

“They used to keep a key to the border (gate) in the ambulance up in Babb, but times have changed,” Laidlaw said. But he is not concerned that delays like what occurred in New York and Detroit could happen in Montana, mainly because in such a sparsely populated area, people – like customs officials and ambulance drivers – recognize each other.

“They know who I am and they know who my volunteers up in Babb are,” Laidlaw said of the Piegan border agents.

In September, a pipeline company pumping hydrogen sulfate in Canada notified Glacier County EMS about its work with the dangerous gas, in case an emergency required EMS help from south-of-the-border. In the course of preparing for a potential incident that never occurred, Laidlaw met with border and customs agents and provided a call list for the Babb ambulance crew, to speed passage through the border. While things have worked smoothly so far, Laidlaw still plans to arrange for the Babb crew to carry passports when the stricter regulations kick in.

As the director of the busiest border crossing in Montana, Sweetgrass Port Director Larry Overcast has more emergency workers passing through than he can accommodate with a simple list, or a few face-to-face meetings. And the inter-local agreement between Toole County and Coutts, Alberta, is an active one.

To accommodate emergency responders, Overcast monitors ambulance and fire calls in Montana and Canada. When a call goes out, the Sweetgrass Port opens up an emergency lane.