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    Concorde Overpass: Responses and lessons from a catastrophe

    lundi 28 septembre 2009
    • Three years ago, on September 30, 2006, the Concorde Overpass collapsed, causing a true human drama and a media storm. This catastrophe came as a real shock to the engineering world in Québec, a shock that will resonate for a long time. The Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ) was one of the main organizations concerned. Where are we now, three years later? What have we done and what is left to do? Below is a summary.
    • The OIQ has been concerned in two ways. As a professional organization responsible for supervising the practice of engineers, the OIQ is conducting, through the Office of the Syndic, a thorough inquiry in order to determine if the engineers involved in the design, construction and maintenance of the structure violated the laws and regulations governing the practice of the profession. In addition, as an organization that cares about community and public interest, the OIQ presented an important brief to the Inquiry Commission on the collapse of the Concorde Overpass. The recommendations of the OIQ, largely adopted by the Commission, mark a major change in the way we manage public infrastructures. In fact, the Ministère des Transports du Québec (MTQ) implemented a number of measures and announced major investments to ensure better management and sustainability of infrastructures. At the same time, the OIQ is actively working to implement such measures in the municipal arena. The challenge is a big one. This is a brand new initiative that we must move forward.

      A complex and delicate inquiry
      I will start by discussing the inquiry by the Office of the Syndic, which began just after the catastrophe and required extraordinary resources. This is an extremely complex inquiry, undoubtedly more delicate than anything the OIQ has experienced to date. We had to go back about forty years and index tens of thousands of pages of documents, question witnesses in order to reconstruct the facts and evaluate them based on the best practices and technical, ethical and legal "standards" of that era.
       
      This matter is anything but simple. The overpass had a special, uncommon design that has been abandoned since. A lot of important documents have not been found. Witnesses, businesses and their archives disappeared. We have to be aware that the controls performed on professionals and their work have changed a lot since the advent of the Professional Code in 1974. Yet, the OIQ did not exist as it is now before that date and the legal system was very different. However, to be completely fair and just, the syndics must remain unbiased when researching the past and apply the rules in force at that time in every case.
       
      In any inquiry, a syndic must establish formal, documented and convincing proof before filing a complaint before the Disciplinary Committee. For that reason, the syndic's mandate is different than that of the Johnson Commission, which had to analyze all of the facts and make recommendations.
       
      I believe, as does the Syndic of the OIQ, that the inquiry is making satisfactory progress. I am anxious to see it end and can assure you that all administrators and those in charge of the OIQ share this feeling. We are taking the time necessary to rigorously and properly conduct this inquiry.

      Measures to improve practice
      That said, the OIQ is not only conducting inquiries. In the field, we have seriously strengthened our ability to monitor the practice of engineers by focusing on prevention and intervention. We now have 18 inspectors, which is twice the number that we had three years ago. Soon we will have three times the number of annual inspections. We have implemented a pre-inspection system using a questionnaire, which allows us to better target our inspections. We are strengthening our ability to detect unlawful practice. We have also proposed several initiatives that are intended to improve the supervision of engineering practice, such as the publication of guidelines for engineering documents. Other documents and practice guides are being studied and will be created.
       
      In addition to the above, the theme of our 2009 annual symposium, which focuses on professional development, concerned public infrastructures and works, and our public affairs activities in the wake of the brief that we presented to the Johnson Commission. As I mentioned, our recommendations were implemented by the MTQ. We now want them to be adopted by the municipalities. This is definitely more complicated. The some 1,115 municipalities in Québec manage public infrastructures just like the MTQ. They are responsible for equipment worth several tens of billions of dollars across Québec, equipment whose condition and proper functioning have a direct impact on the health, safety and welfare of their citizens.
       
      The municipalities must have the means and resources necessary to assume these responsibilities. We have made use of all available forums, including the Parliamentary Commission, to spread this message and we will continue to do so.

      Make the supervision of works mandatory
      At the same time, the OIQ is contributing to the development of a municipal action plan, a long-term, integrated management tool to be used by engineers, municipal officers and government officials. We want this tool to serve the communities that must appropriate and finish developing it.
       
      Finally, as part of the consolidation of the Engineers Act, we are making sure that the monitoring of engineering works becomes mandatory. We are also working on the implementation of process traceability measures, which is sort of akin to the issue of the condition of infrastructures, whose service life is calculated in terms decades.
       
      Such an event must never happen again. That means that as a society, we must understand what happened, learn everything we can about it and implement corrective measures. We are very committed to this process, but there is still much to do. The Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec is hard at work on the rest.
       
      Maud Cohen, Eng., President
      Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec

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