By Steven Bibby
BC Housing has released its latest damage assessment tool to support tenants, owners, occupants and communities impacted by damaging events such as floods, fires, wind storms and earthquakes.
A rapid assessment of the safety of structures evacuated because of a disaster reduces the disaster’s social impact, allowing communities to recover quicker and reduce the impact on emergency and social service resources.
Rapid Damage Assessment is a process used by first and second responders to quickly assess buildings to determine whether they have become unsafe for occupancy. Using protocols which have been developed by the Applied Technology Council in the USA, and adopted by several countries’ world wide, it categorizes a building as being either unsafe, restricted use or having no restrictions following a quick 30-minute assessment. Assessors with some degree of engineering, architectural, technical or construction knowledge are typically trained over a 7-hour period how to safely identify and record seven criteria (ATC 20 & ATC 45) which impact the safety or habitability of a building following a flood, earthquake, windstorm, or similar event. They placard the building to advise occupants and visitors of the results of their assessment, and to warn of any restrictions or unsafe conditions.
BC Housing has provided communities and individuals with Rapid Damage Assessment training for several decades. As the provincial agency that develops, manages and administers a wide range of subsidized housing options across the province, they began training their own building management staff around 1990 to ensure that they could assess their own buildings quickly. In 2016, they embarked on a research project to identify best practices from around the world. Partnering with the Justice Institute of BC, Engineers and Geoscientists BC, and the Architectural Institute of BC, this team developed a Post Disaster Building Assessment (PDBA) Framework and Recommendations that communities across the country can use in advance of natural disasters or emergencies situations. The Framework can help communities determine which teams will be responding in an emergency and equip the teams to ensure that they have the tools necessary to perform Post-Disaster Building Assessments. This supports communities in their ability to get people back in their homes as quickly and safely as possible. The Framework includes the shared expertise of 49 organizations from around the globe that are involved in related building assessment fields such as engineering, search and rescue, and emergency management. The research project was funded by the Canadian Safety and Security Program, a federal program led by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) in partnership with Public Safety Canada.
The framework and the tools are experiential and capture learning from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, several earthquake responses in New Zealand, as well as local events in British Columbia and Alberta. When flooding impacted the community of Grand Forks in May 2018, BC Housing aided with training and coordinating personnel to use the PDBA process for their homes and businesses. This process was a key contributing factor in people being able to return to their homes or businesses quicker, and for identifying those which had restrictions or that were unsafe for occupancy. BC Housing’s PDBA process allowed emergency personnel to quickly identify the status of businesses and residences. BC Housing also shared the Geographic Information System (GIS) based tools with Alberta in 2016, which they used to assist evacuees following their devastating fires in Fort McMurray. BC Housing’s damage assessment training had been provided to emergency personnel in Alberta only a few years prior, following the 2013 floods in Calgary and High River. The GIS tools were developed jointly by BC Housing, North Shore Emergency Management, and the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia, and are now managed by Geo-BC.
Some of the unique challenges and findings within the framework address issues such as the team assignments. While considerable research is available on building engineering practice, the framework focused on subjects with little or no documented process, such as the best practices and adapting standards for building typology, assessor and coordinator curriculum, placard wording, team assignments, and the coordination structure. The complexity and crossover points of the overall assessment process was identified as a “system of systems”, tying together emergency management, search and rescue, safety assessments, situational awareness, information management, and other related components.
One unique element of the B.C. approach is the inclusion of Emergency Support Services personnel in the team allocation. Another is the assessment of non-complex buildings by personnel with backgrounds in other areas of expertise that are appropriate for emergency situations, such as construction and emergency managers. The latter approach helps to overcome a well-known issue of engineer availability in disasters, by helping to assess buildings within the skill set of other available personnel while developing a triage process based on both building importance and typology. It is also one of the most challenging recommendations, as it requires agreement and definition on the building typology as it relates to the skills and credentials of those tasked to assess them.
In addition to the BC PDBA Framework, BC Housing has created internationally-recognized tools, including the newly released Building Assessor Registry. The first of its kind in Canada, the Registry permits BC Housing to rapidly link assessors with communities requiring their services. The Registry allows individuals to self-identify their training, qualifications, contact information, and their willingness to assist communities following a damaging event. Any community impacted by such an event and requiring building assessors can contact BC Housing through Emergency Management BC to request their help. BC Housing will then contact the assessors and connect them with the impacted community for deployment.
In order to develop provincially recognized credentials, qualifications, forms and training, a provincial PDBA Advisory Committee was formed in 2018 to represent the primary stakeholders who would be involved in the process. The advisory committee includes representation from small, large and indigenous communities, along with provincial ministries and agencies, and many professional organizations representing architects, engineers, building officials, technologists, facilities managers, and others. This Advisory Committee meets cyclically to ensure that the tools, processes and governance will continue to meet the needs of the communities and the province. Through the PDBA Research Project, they have also developed a network of international experts in building assessment who can be called upon to assist when needed.
Several ongoing challenges still exist within B.C., for example, civil liability protection, and the ownership of the assessment process. Providing civil liability protection to assessors depends on several factors, such as a universally accepted definition of building typology along with a minimum standard of curriculum which can lead to certification. Ownership of an overall assessment process is also challenging given that it is a system of systems. There is no single branch of government or single non-government organization responsible for the entire system, and an unwillingness to take on the entire process given the scarce availability of resources.
BC Housing regularly provides two levels of training for individuals, communities, and organizations in support of the PDBA program. BC Housing’s Rapid Damage Assessment training teaches people how to quickly assess buildings to determine whether they are unsafe to occupy using internationally adopted protocols developed by the Applied Technology Council (ATC). For communities and organizations who need to develop or manage a their own PDBA program, they offer the Coordination of Damage Assessment training. Engineers and Geoscientists BC have begun providing technical training for engineers and others who use monitoring devices for their prioritized post earthquake response and assessments. The Architectural Institute of BC also provides the ATC training to their membership and guests based on a model from California’s Safety Assessment Program.
BC Housing continues to meet with representatives from other provinces, territories and countries to encourage the development of a unified national and international PDBA program. In support of this endeavor, resources such as the research, recommendations, tools, placards and further information gathered is available for free on the BC Housing website: https://www.bchousing.org/about/post-disaster-building-assessments or by contacting the author and BC Housing’s Security and Emergency Services staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:
Steven Bibby is the Director of Security and Emergency Services at BC Housing, leading the emergency management, business continuity and security programs for the provincial agency since 2005. He is the Co-Chair of the BC Post-Disaster Building Assessment Advisory Committee, and his emergency response experience has been developed working as a practitioner at emergencies throughout Canada since 1997, along with research in Japan since 2008 and in New Zealand, Italy and Greece.