In a disaster, what is really going to happen?

By Victor Smart, Manager, Fire & Life Safety for the Cadillac Fairview Vancouver Properties

Lately I’ve been pondering professionally and personally: if the Lower Mainland of British Columbia is subject to a catastrophic event such as a major earthquake, what is going to happen?

For the past ten years, I have held countless emergency preparedness workshops for tenants either for the general building population or individual organizations. These workshops have traditionally addressed office and personal preparedness, as well as business continuity. Municipalities have held free Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Programs workshops for many years as well.

On September 8th, 2011, Vancouver was “rocked” with a magnitude 6.3 earthquake with the epicentre located 50 km. off the west coast of Vancouver Island (approximately 300 km from Vancouver).

The problem? Some people felt it, some people didn’t. In my particular circumstance, I was sitting at my desk and my first information about the earthquake was a telephone call from security asking if I had felt it?

Since not everyone felt it, including most of the property management group, no action was taken on our part. This added to the confusion because tenants that occupied higher floors evacuated their tenancy. Others didn’t. We decided fairly quickly to send out a tenant bulletin outlining that there had been a “minor” earthquake but it had not affected any part of the building operations and thus there was no need for further action.

Since that time I have been fortunate to speak to some tenants about the events of September 9th.  My question to some people who evacuated was “where did you think you were going?” If the answer was that they were closing the office for the day thereby “evacuating” the premises, and then going home (not that would be correct, but I can see that point of view) that would be one thing. But the answer they gave was to evacuate the building and then to proceed outside (not even to the designated assembly area) and wait. What were they waiting for? Thus far, I have not been given a reasonable response to that question.

January 26th, 2011 was the first British Columbia ShakeOut. According to the ShakeOut website (www.shakeoutbc.ca) close to 500,000 people participated in the province. A large number to be sure, but take into account that the Vancouver Police Department website for District 1 estimates that the business day time population of downtown Vancouver can reach upwards of over 300,000 people.

On October 26th, 2011 another British Columbia ShakeOut was held to align with the similar drill in the Pacific Northwest and California where according to the ShakeOut website, over 530,000 participants registered. Again, an imposing number for the province as a whole. Personally, I believe that the past two ShakeOut Drills were a fantastic concept and look forward to holding future ShakeOut drills.

So what would happen if we had a catastrophic event? The easy answer is “no one knows for sure,” but I believe the populous of the Lower Mainland will face some hard times immediately afterwards.

Most people are “programmed” to call 9-1-1 when they need help. Those emergency preparedness professionals are aware that emergency services will be immediately overwhelmed and shift into “triage mode” to deal with only the very serious situations first. Once the command structure is mobilized, assessment becomes the norm and emergency services will respond as directed by the City’s emergency management team.

So what about the others? Those people that haven’t paid attention to the news, attended a workshop or information session? They will most likely expect the fire service, the police department and the paramedic service to arrive to help them and tell them what to do.

In commercial real estate, tenants will be asking the property manager what to do. The question is, do they know what to do? Do they know how to assess their facility? Have they a plan? Have they exercised it? Do they have supplies?

One of the questions I asked one of the occupants of our buildings when I first started in the commercial real estate world many years ago was “Do you have emergency supplies?” They responded that it was the landlord’s responsibility to provide food and water supplies for them.  I informed him (and everyone since then) that it is the individual organization’s responsibility to provide food and water supplies for their staff. Unfortunately, those that have not heard this information will not have planned ahead of time and then will be looking at the property owner to provide those supplies to their staff.

People will want to go home and take care of loved ones not realizing that if they have a bridge to cross it’s unlikely they’ll be able to get there. Those that take public transit will expect to get onto buses and trains as they normally do for their commute home. Those that drive will be expecting to go down to their vehicles and make their way home just like on a normal day, not realizing that streets and roads may be blocked by debris and any accessible routes are likely to have dozens of cars on them containing people thinking exactly as they do. Not to mention the general lack of awareness of the Disaster Response Routes. Have people seen the signs? Do they know what they mean?

We are very fortunate we are not often faced with emergency events on a grand scale, but unfortunately, because of a lack of experience we don’t know what to expect and thus don’t know how to react. I guess in many ways as much as I hope I’m doing my part in informing as many people as I can but is it enough? What else can be done? Who needs to be involved in “spreading the message”? Do we always need to wait until something happens before there is action?