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Border Delays Through Customs Delay Emergency Response

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- On a recent Sunday evening, Canadian volunteer firefighters responded to a call for assistance from their neighbors across the border in Clinton County, after a fire had begun at a restaurant in Rouses Point.

Responding to such calls from across the border is not uncommon in those parts where a mutual-aid agreement has been in place for decades. What was different in this latest attempt by Canadian firefighters to race to the aid of their fellow New York firefighters is that they were stopped at the border.

In the past, U.S. border guards would have waved them through. This time, a customs official questioned and delayed them by between eight and 15 minutes. In this type of situation, minutes count -- every single one. This time it was a historical building that was lost, but it could have been much worse.

Historically, many communities along the Canada-U.S. border call upon and depend upon assistance from neighboring communities. That s what good neighbors do -- provide help in times of urgency, as we have always done.

Here in the cross-border Niagara region, the International Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness -- made up of public safety and other first responders, health and environmental officials as well as nongovernmental volunteer networks -- meet regularly to ensure that the plans and communication networks are in place, including with border officials, to address emergencies in the cross-border region.

The border should not become a hinderance to neighbors providing assistance to neighbors. We want a border that allows us to help each other.

The border concerns raised over this restaurant fire also extend to patients in medical evacuation cases. There have been cases, since the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requirements for air travelers, when family members of the evacuated patients were refused boarding to the United States because they did not have a passport.

Concerns about the health and well-being of patients who were thereby denied the support of family at such a critical time have been raised by health providers on both sides of the border. Canada believes that an alternative procedure for the transfer of medical patients is specifically required for all modes of travel between Canada and the United States.

Canada is committed to working with the United States to ensure a safe and secure border. In August we submitted our comments on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative proposed rule-making for land and sea implementation. These comments recommended that protocols be developed to facilitate the cross-border travel of emergency workers as well as medical evacuation cases.

The incident in Northern New York underlines the importance of developing such an approach.

Stephen Brereton is consul general of the Consulate General for Canada in Buffalo.

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