Preparing for a disaster

Variety of governments, agencies and organizations have planned for the worst

In the event of a major earthquake in Greater Victoria, a variety of governments, agencies and organizations have plans in place to deal with the emergency. Given that we don't know what kind of earthquake will hit -or when -it's difficult to ascertain exactly how each group would react. But here's a general primer on the various plans and procedures:

MUNICIPALITIES

article continues below

Each municipality has an emergency operation centre (EOC) where a team of 30 to 50 police officers, firefighters, city staff, public works officials, logistic coordinators and engineers would gather in the event of a major disaster. If the primary meeting spot was destroyed, each municipality plans for a backup EOC location or mobile command centre, which is fully equipped with telephones, two-way radios and Internet connection.

While Victoria might see different challenges in an earthquake than, for example, Saanich or Langford, most municipalities have similar emergency response plans.

The emergency response has to be flexible enough to change day by day, hour by hour, says Brock Henson, Saanich's emergency program officer.

"On Day One, the priority might be search and rescue," Henson says. "But two weeks down the road it might be long-term shelter, debris management or transportation."

Check your local municipality's emergency management website for more information. The link in Victoria is preparevictoria.ca.

EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT B.C.

While each municipality is in charge of the immediate disaster response for its area, Emergency Management B.C. (the umbrella agency that includes the Provincial Emergency Program) would step in and provide additional resources in the face of widespread destruction.

If, for example, several municipalities in Greater Victoria were over-burdened, the province could send in extra fire trucks and firefighters, ambulances and paramedics, search and rescue teams, or helicopters, according to Kelli Kryzanowski, the province's manager of catastrophic planning.

EMBC can also ask other communities unaffected by the earthquake to send resources to the disaster zone.

The province would also provide financial assistance.

If the disaster relief is too much for the province to handle, it can ask the federal government for help. The Department of National Defence could mobilize the Canadian Forces, helicopters and aircraft from CFB Esquimalt, and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Provincial information: www.pep.bc.ca and click on Earthquakes

Federal information: getprepared.gc.ca

FIRE DEPARTMENTS

A major earthquake will likely cause fires to break out across the disaster zone, caused by ruptured gas lines and electrical malfunctions. Firefighters would respond as they would to any other blaze, but the key difference is they will be needed in multiple areas at once.

Fire crews would initially be dispatched to the hardest hit areas and then likely respond to the emergencies they see on the ground, says Brock Henson, Saanich's emergency program officer.

Beyond battling fires, firefighters' crucial role will be search and rescue. They will rescue people trapped in tall buildings, evacuate people from unstable structures or look for survivors under rubble.

Volunteer firefighters are dispatched through a pager system or by telephone. But in remote areas with patchy reception, such as Port Renfrew, an emergency siren would mobilize firefighters and emergency responders.

The fire service can ask its neighbouring departments for more ladder trucks or personnel, or it can ask the province to provide fire resources through Emergency Management B.C.

POLICE DEPARTMENTS

In addition to helping with search and rescue, the region's municipal police departments and RCMP detachments would cordon off dangerous areas around crumbling buildings, conduct crowd control, manage traffic and direct people to evacuation routes. They would advise the public of closed roads and respond to car crashes. Police will also patrol the streets to prevent looting and maintain order.

Most police headquarters were built to withstand a major earthquake, but Sgt. Matt Waterman, who is in charge of Victoria police's emergency plan, says police officers have to be ready to work from their cars or the scene of a critical incident should a police station be hit by a quake. Police also have access to emergency storage containers which are strategically placed around the region and stocked with cots, blankets, generators and water filtration systems.

Check your local police department's website for information.

PARAMEDICS

Like most emergency responders, B.C. Ambulance paramedics will have all hands on deck if there's a major natural disaster.

Paramedics would report to the nearest ambulance station and co-ordinate with local police and fire agencies to determine where they are needed most, according to Shawn Carvy, B.C. Ambulance Service's executive director for Vancouver Island.

The ambulance service has mapped out alternative routes in case major arteries are blocked by debris or landslides, he says.

For example, if the Malahat were blocked, paramedics could get around it by taking the ferry between Brentwood Bay and Mill Bay.

Paramedics could also use all-terrain vehicles to help an injured person trapped in a rugged remote area, Carvy says.

Medical support units are stationed across the Island. They are converted ambulances stocked with disaster relief equipment that could be sent to a disaster zone.

Paramedics also have access to strategically placed stockpiles of medical equipment, which could convert a large auditorium into a makeshift hospital, Carvy says.

COMMUNICATION (BETWEEN EMERGENCY RESPONDERS)

In the event of an earthquake in Greater Victoria, the region's police, firefighters, paramedics and emergency dispatchers would likely flood the emergency radio channels in order to communicate quickly. In total, 36 emergency agencies in the region are linked through the Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications or CREST system.

The CREST system has multiple levels of backup to ensure it doesn't fail in the face of a natural disaster, according to Bill Sidaway, CREST's network operations manager.

The system has 25 communication sites, all of which are engineered to withstand a major earthquake.

Each site is self-sustaining -complete with generators, battery banks and external portable power sources -so that it can function even if the power is knocked out.

If one of those sites is damaged, the rest of the system remains operable.

"We don't have a single point of failure on the system," Sidaway says.

For more information: www.crest.ca

CANADIAN FORCES

If an earthquake or tsunami in Greater Victoria resulted in a national state of emergency, the Department of National Defence would work with the province to send in crucial resources.

Joint Task Forces Pacific would implement its contingency plan for an earthquake in the region, dubbed Operation Panorama, according to Lt. Col. Pat Quealey.

Navy, army and air force personnel from the joint task force's incident reconnaissance group would report for duty and be ready to deploy within six hours of being notified of the emergency, Quealey says.

The military members would conduct an assessment of the disaster zone and determine what Canadian Forces resources are needed.

More than 7,500 military personnel are stationed across the province and could be called in to distribute emergency supplies or assist police and firefighters.

"We have expertise in operations, logistics, communication, engineering, health services support, public affairs and force protection," Quealey says.

The Victoria Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, working out of CFB Esquimalt, would likely be assigned to carry out search and rescue operations across the Island. The centre can deploy a Cormorant helicopter or fixed-wing Buffalo aircraft from 442 Squadron at CFB Comox or it can send coast guard vessels to assist with rescues on the water.

For more information: www.canadacom.forces.gc.ca and click on Canada Command.

PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT

A moderate to serious earthquake is likely to flatten B.C.'s provincial legislature building, and there's a good chance many of the 85 politicians and about 500 senior staff inside would be killed, according to the most recent engineering study of the building.

Anticipating that Victoria's search and rescue services would be overwhelmed, the legislature has its own equipment to lift and remove heavy objects after a disaster, says Gary Lenz, the building's sergeant-at-arms.

But if the damage is so extensive as to render the capital building uninhabitable, there are also contingency plans to set up a new site from which to run government somewhere else in B.C., he says. The exact plan and locations are confidential.

"The legislature isn't going to stop; we would move to another location and that's your business continuity plan," Lenz said in a recent interview on Earthquake Preparedness Day. "It would be decided at that time where the safest place in British Columbia is to set up, what has the infrastructure support. That's all part of the plan."

B.C.'s Speaker of the Legislature, advised by the premier, gets the final call on the new location.

But, in an emergency, much of the decision-making would likely be made by the government's 18-person cabinet, led by Premier Christy Clark, which can meet almost anywhere and make orders without having to convene the legislature.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

If an earthquake strikes, most people will turn to their phones and the Internet to get crucial information.

The Island's largest Internet providers, Telus and Shaw, have several cables that connect the Island with the Mainland, so if one fails, there will be multiple backups.

Telus runs its wired and wireless phone service through separate facilities, says company spokesman Shawn Hall. That means if one of the switch buildings is destroyed, cutting off landline phone service to an area, wireless service would not be affected, and vice versa.

Hall said the company's fibre-optic network is designed in counter-rotating rings around the Island so that if one cable breaks, service can be rerouted to alternative cables.

The region's communication towers are designed to withstand an earthquake, Hall says.

Because telecommunications buildings are considered critical infrastructure, they must be built to a seismic standard that is 50 per cent higher than normal buildings.

If phone lines and Internet connection were down, people could communicate via satellite phones, walkie talkies or ham radios.

POWER AND GAS

When the earth shakes, objects on it -like power poles and wires bringing electricity to our homes -move too, so power outages are common. Underground cables can also be damaged. How long it takes to repair depends on the quake's magnitude, says Sheena Vivian, manager of emergency planning for B.C. Hydro. While power poles and lines are built to the standard expected throughout North America, it is "almost impossible" to earthquake-proof anything, Vivian says.

Dealing with gas leaks is a priority for FortisBC (formerly Terasen Gas), says Marcus Wong, head of corporate communications. Engineers go to places that have experienced earthquakes to learn how to better safeguard the B.C. system. The natural gas system in the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles was made of cast iron and suffered extensive damage. Based on that, FortisBC changed its pipes to highstrength welded steel and polyethylene, which have fared much better in other earthquake-prone areas.

For information: www.bchydro.com and click on Safety, then Safety in Emergencies.

- www.fortisbc.com and click on Natural Gas, then Natural Gas Safety.

ROADS AND HIGHWAYS

In the event of a major earthquake, Ministry of Transportation inspectors would ensure provincial roads and bridges are safe for travel, says spokesman Jeff Knight.

"The ministry's priority has been to seismically retrofit bridges on the Disaster Response Routes," Knight says.

These routes, which would be restricted to emergency vehicles during a disaster, include the Patricia Bay Highway from McKenzie Avenue to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, the Trans-Canada Highway from McKenzie to Goldstream Park and the Veterans Memorial Parkway.

The public is expected to stay off these highways once an emergency is declared.

Signs posted along roads declaring them disaster response routes are often misinterpreted by the public as evacuation routes, says a ministry handout.

For more information: www.th.gov.bc.ca and click on Highway Travellers, then Disaster Response Routes

B.C. FERRIES

One of the safest places you can be during an earthquake is aboard one of B.C. Ferries' vessels, but there could be significant problems getting home from the terminal.

Once an earthquake occurs, the crew and passengers would be notified immediately, says B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall.

"The vessels would wait out in the ocean until it's confirmed they can go to a particular terminal to offload," Marshall says.

The terminals would have to be thoroughly checked for damage before vessels could come in, and those vessels would use onboard equipment to check for underwater obstructions.

The ferries may have to divert from their normal runs to pick up emergency crews and supplies. Fuel conservation would become paramount.

The ferries may not allow vehicles or passengers to disembark if the road into town were unsafe, Marshall says.

"We wouldn't want to be causing more of a problem by dumping 300 cars at Swartz Bay if there's a problem with the Pat Bay Highway, because then we're just exacerbating the problem."

All terminals have evacuation plans with multiple safe zones. The emergency preparedness plans include fire, first aid and oil spill containment.

VICTORIA AIRPORT

Victoria International Airport has a comprehensive emergency-response plan that is continually updated.

"Earthquakes are an integral part of the plan, given that we live on the coast," says Terry Stewart, director of airside operations and development.

"We've had earthquakes over the last 20 years, so we're well documented on what the potential impacts would be given a six, seven or eight magnitude earthquake."

The terminal building and runways meet the current standards, but the airport's viability after an earthquake will depend on the magnitude, Stewart says: "We would be up and ready as quickly as possible."

The airport has engineers on retainer who would check out earthquake damage to the terminal and runways. The risk of the airport being damaged by a tsunami is small, he adds.

The military would work in conjunction with the airport to get operational as quickly as possible.

"We would be flying in the military and support aircraft to help the population here in Victoria," Stewart says.

Details of the airport's emergency-response plans are not made public because of security concerns.

SCHOOLS

Most significant seismic upgrades needed at Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands schools have been completed over the past decade, and all new construction and rebuilding projects since then have been completed to modern earthquake-ready standards.

In all, 90 projects identified in the provincial Seismic Mitigation Program for B.C. schools are complete, 21 are underway and 10 are ready to proceed. On the Island, current projects are a reconstruction of North Saanich Middle School, a reconstruction of the Fairey Technical Building at

Victoria High School and seismic upgrades at Victoria's Central Middle School and Alberni District Secondary in Port Alberni.

In the Greater Victoria School District, further work will be done on Vic High within a few years, some minor work is needed at Tillicum Elementary, and the aging Oak Bay Secondary could soon be in line for replacement.

Seismic work in the Saanich School District and Sooke School District is largely complete. One of the newer Sooke schools, Happy Valley Elementary, includes a community disaster-operations centre built in partnership with the City of Langford.

Belmont Secondary in Langford, which the Sooke school district has been hoping to replace with a pair of new high schools, is 50 years old and has had no seismic work.

District officials were recently told by the province that they might have to settle for just one new high school, leaving their plan in limbo.

Schools are not mandated to have emergency plans, but almost all do. Those plans include having emergency kits on site and participating in drills.

With child-care facilities, the Child Care Licensing Regulation does not specifically address seismic issues but requires that such sites have an emergency plan in place.

HEALTH

Norma Jones, corporate director of emergency management for Vancouver Island Health Authority, says one of the keys to a good disaster-response plan is regular communication with Emergency Management B.C., and emergency planners from municipalities and other jurisdictions.

"We all want to be linked so that if there is an issue we can ask for help not only from a provincial level but a federal level, or we can also ask our other health authorities.

VIHA's not in isolation."

Should Island hospitals be damaged in an earthquake or tsunami, other health authorities in the province could be called on for help, says Jones. "And in the event that any facility was damaged, we have the ability to evacuate from one facility to another."

She says new hospital construction projects are designed to high seismic standards, and points out that Royal Jubilee Hospital's recently completed patient-care complex is built to withstand an earthquake of up to magnitude 8.6.

It also includes an emergency-response centre designed to maintain vital communication links in the event of a disaster.

Jones says another option for VIHA is a Vancouver-based mobile medical unit, a legacy from the 2010 Olympics, which includes semi-trailers and a large tent. She says the public-health service would be another important piece of any disaster response with its attention to water supply, sewage and sanitation.

Jones says her department is working on a public web page to outline VIHA's plans, but currently has only an internal page for VIHA employees. She suggests the public visit the Provincial Emergency Program website at pep.bc.ca, or go to the "public health" section of www.viha.ca should an event occur.

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist


Find out what's happening in your community.

Most Popular