Shining a light on OL’s Rail Safety Ambassadors

2021 is a big year for Operation Lifesaver (OL). It marks four decades since the organization first started. To celebrate our big anniversary, we’ll be shining a light on the important work of our Rail Safety Ambassadors.
Rail Safety Ambassadors are Canadians who share our belief that every rail-related death or injury can—and should—be prevented. They volunteer their time to get our message out to the public by delivering rail safety presentations, sharing our posts and videos on social media, and by taking part in educational events—and by doing so, they help us to save lives.
Emily Mak is one of the hundreds of Rail Safety Ambassadors helping to spread OL’s rail safety message across the country. She’s the director of corporate affairs and general counsel for Southern Railway of British Columbia and a member of OL’s British Columbia provincial committee. She spoke to OL about the work she does as a Rail Safety Ambassador and why she believes it matters.   
Why do you believe the work you do with Operation Lifesaver makes a difference?
I really believe that Operation Lifesaver provides the ability to communicate with communities and share with them the message that railway incidents are preventable. But it's not possible to really measure what difference you have made, because every year in Canada people die in railway incidents—whether it's by trespassing or trying to beat the train through a crossing. Until we get to a day where we can have zero deaths, we'll never really know if we've made a difference. But if there is one person out there who second-guesses what they should or should not do when they come to a railway crossing—and then makes the right choice—then we've made a difference because that person is still alive.

What are some of the unsafe behaviours around railway tracks and trains that really make you shake your head?
One of the things that really makes me shake my head is when people see the train coming and think that they can beat it through the crossing. You can almost imagine that the gears are turning in that person's head and they're saying, “You know what, I'm going to go for it.” In a situation like that, you don't know how fast that train is moving, or whether your car might break down on the tracks. You have no control over so many things. Yet, you're going to make the unsafe choice. And you're doing it so you can save, what, 30 seconds out of your life?
Is there a particular group of Canadians that you try to reach with the rail safety message?
In my work with Operation Lifesaver, I really try to focus on sharing that educational message with school kids. I like the age of seven to 10 years old or so because they're like sponges. They're listening to your message. My personal hope is that by talking to them at that point, there's something that we can embed in their subconscious. Maybe in 10 years when these kids are teenagers and goofing off, my hope is that they remember somehow what they were taught 10 years previously and that they make the right choice when they're around railway property. Maybe if we can just reach those kids, then they can become the next generation of people who engage in safe behaviours around railway property.
How important do you think it is that an organization like Operation Lifesaver exists?
I believe that our country would not be as safe if it wasn't for Operation Lifesaver. I don't think that any one railway can touch the lives of the public as effectively as a unified organization like Operation Lifesaver is able to.  It allows us to share a consistent message across the country. And I think that if you consistently use the same language such as “Any time is train time,” “Stop track tragedies,” and “Look, listen and live,” it will seep into people’s consciousness. Operation Lifesaver also gives victims a voice. And I'm not just talking about survivors who may have suffered a life-changing accident, but their families whose lives have been adversely impacted by a train incident.
What do you personally get out of being a Rail Safety Ambassador?
I guess it's a little bit idealistic to say that I do it out of the goodness of my heart, but I think to a certain extent that is what it means to be a Rail Safety Ambassador. Because a person who avoids a railway incident is not going to seek you out and congratulate you, or give you a prize, or pay you in any way. You're doing it really out of passion—passion for people's lives and the knowledge that every railway accident is preventable. If there's something that I can do, however small it might be, to prevent a railway accident, then I should do it. Everybody should, if they can.
Want to join Emily and OL’s team of Rail Safety Ambassadors from coast to coast? Join us in celebrating our 40th anniversary by signing up today—and help us save lives.