Helicopters Magazine

Features Commercial SAR
Post-disaster Preparation: Are you ready?

August 5, 2008  By Paul Dixon

It’s the middle of the night and you’re not sure what’s happening.  Maybe it’s a dream. Am I in bed or on the floor?  It seems like the entire world has turned upside down and might even still be moving. You realize you are indeed awake and this is for real, you’re in the middle of an earthquake. You’re alive and uninjured.  If you are lucky, you’re able to account for the rest of your family.  You quickly determine there is no electricity and no dial tone on the telephone.   Your cell phone is silent, as is the Blackberry.

It’s the middle of the night and you’re not sure what’s happening.  Maybe it’s a dream. Am I in bed or on the floor?  It seems like the entire world has turned upside down and might even still be moving. You realize you are indeed awake and this is for real, you’re in the middle of an earthquake. You’re alive and uninjured.  If you are lucky, you’re able to account for the rest of your family.  You quickly determine there is no electricity and no dial tone on the telephone.   Your cell phone is silent, as is the Blackberry.

Hearing voices outside, you go out and confer with your neighbours.  The city around you is in total darkness, with only a flickering flashlight here and there stabbing the night.  In the distance a lone siren can be heard above a growing chorus of voices.

Is this it, the big one? What about aftershocks? Fire? What happens now? You are the chief pilot for XYZ Helicopters. With visions of Katrina dancing in your mind, you have never been so acutely aware of how important your services can be to your community.  Are you prepared to respond?

briefing for B.C. Provincial Emergency Program staff before
reconnaissance flight – May, 2007 (Photo courtesy Paul Dixon)
Early morning
arrival.  Helijet SN-61 (C-GBSF) about to touch down at Vancouver
harbour heliport.  North Shore mountains in the background. (Photo
courtesy Paul Dixon)
B.C. Ministry of
Forests Air Operations Dispatch Centre, Parksville. Dispatchers in
photo – Breann Pollock, Catherine Gagnon, Christina Ciolfi, Katherine
Hawkes. (Photo courtesy of Paul Dixon)

Events of recent years – the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the recent devastating earthquake in China – underscore the need for rapid and comprehensive response to mitigate human suffering. 

Emergency planners in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia are developing a program that will integrate land, sea and air transportation to support response efforts in the event of any major disaster. The Disaster Response Route program was born in the wake of the January 1995 earthquake that devastated Kobe, Japan.  Damage to the road network and other transportation infrastructure made it impossible for responders from outside the region to get into the city.  The response was piecemeal and ad hoc, adding greatly to the level of suffering in the devastated city.

One of the greatest challenges in the Greater Vancouver area following a major earthquake will be maintaining clear road access so that first responders (police, fire and ambulance) as well as disaster response workers can reach problem areas to help victims and bring in supplies. The Disaster Response Route program addresses this by identifying and designating a network of key transportation routes in the region for responders. Mike Andrews, a regional manager with the British Columbia Provincial Emergency Program, has been one of the key people in the Disaster Response Route program. “The concept of Disaster Response Routes was initially applied only to the road network in the Lower Mainland.  Our emergency planning is based on an “all hazards” approach and we realized that the road network, especially bridges and tunnels, could be vulnerable to a severe earthquake. At that point, it expanded to all modes of transportation – road, rail, marine and air – with the goal of integrating as many of these modes of transportation wherever possible to enable us to move emergency response personnel and supplies into and around the
affected areas.”

In the spring of 2007, record snowfall in the interior of the province, coupled with a cool, damp spring, threatened to bring flooding of epic proportions to the southwest region of the province with the Fraser River freshet.  Andrews was in charge of the Advanced Planning Unit that was formed to address the situation.  “This was the first time that an advanced planning unit had been formed on this scale in the province, which speaks to the potential magnitude of the situation. In a worst-case scenario, we were looking at severe flooding that could have affected tens of thousands of people across the central and eastern Fraser Valley, as well as the low-lying areas of Greater Vancouver adjacent to the Fraser River.  We very quickly realized that flooding of this magnitude would have a severe impact on the road and rail networks across the entire region, as well as several of the smaller municipal airports. To date, our disaster transportation planning had focused on using the waterways as our primary alternate route if the roads were impassable. The irony of this situation is that the Fraser River was the problem, meaning that high water levels, coupled with the speed of the river and the debris in the water, would make the river too dangerous for navigation. It quickly became very apparent to us that we would be very dependent upon helicopters as the only mode of transportation into some affected areas.”

Andrews said “we knew that we would require an organized system of care and control over these scarce resources. Municipalities are responsible for operations within their boundaries, but when their resources are depleted or overwhelmed, they turn to the province for assistance.  At this point, the province may take responsibility for deploying critical resources, based on a prioritization of need and matching the appropriate resource to the demand. For air resources, it made sense to have the Ministry of Forests, through their Wildfire Protection Branch, take on this responsibility. They have the expertise, staff and equipment to deal with the aviation demands of fire season, so they are best suited to take on this responsibility in other emergencies.” Now, when the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre (PREOC) in Surrey is activated, an air operations specialist from B.C. Forest Service will work in the centre to coordinate requests for air resources between PREOC and Forestry.

Brent Anderson is the senior protection officer – operations with the Coastal Fire Centre, Wildfire Protection Branch. “The B.C. Forest Service does not own any aircraft.  The aircraft we employ are either under contract or hired on a casual, as-needed basis.  Air carriers are invited to submit their aircraft and pilot details on an annual basis, so that we can review them to ensure they meet our minimum standards (http://wildfire.ca/FightingWildfire/Aviation). Automatic Flight Following (AFF) is now mandatory for any operator. In the 2007 operating year, we had 153 active air carriers in the provincial directory.”

From the regional Dispatch Centre in Parksville, Coastal Fire Centre is responsible for all aircraft operations in southwestern B.C. from Manning Park, through Greater Vancouver and up the coast as far as Bella Coola including Vancouver Island. There are five other centres strategically located around the province, utilizing state-of-the-art CAD and data basing, allowing them to share information on a real-time basis. At peak periods, additional staff can be moved into specific centres to assist with overload. If one centre is unable to operate for any reason, the workload can be taken up by other centres through built-in redundancies.

Safety, for both the helicopter operators and those on the ground, is critical. In a post-disaster environment, it is conceivable that most flight operations would be conducted from ad hoc landing spots. It’s one thing to say that helicopters can land wherever needed during an emergency, but there are safety concerns that are not apparent to the general public or even trained police officers, firefighters or paramedics. Anderson explains that B.C. Forest Service crews are trained to set up and maintain helicopter landing zones in difficult situations. “Part of our concept of operations in a post-disaster environment would see our fire crews used to either establish or support landing zone operations, especially in urban areas where there are likely to be large numbers of people present in the area.”

Tim Jones, search manager with North Shore Rescue Team, and Andrew Morrison, search manager with Chilliwack Search and Rescue, talk about how critical it is to match the right helicopter and pilot to the mission. The geography of southwestern B.C. is some of the most extreme in the world. Mountainous terrain, steep, narrow valleys, combined with extreme weather conditions that can change by the minute make rescue missions challenging under even ideal conditions. Blackcomb, Talon and Valley Helicopters provide the aerial support to local search and rescue teams, though as Jones points out, “we only work with the pilots from these companies that we have trained with. It’s imperative that we all fully understand the challenges we are facing. During a mission, the pilot is in command. It’s their decision whether the mission can be flown or not, depending on weather and other circumstances.” Morrison adds that in larger, area-wide incidents, it will be critical to ensure that available helicopters are matched as best as possible to the tasks at hand. “Search and rescue requires specific helicopters. It’s important that the SAR-qualified pilots and aircraft not be sent off on VIP flights and the like.”

Jody Sydor Jones, now director of emergency management for Vancouver Coastal Health Region, served with the International Red Cross in Indonesia in response to the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. “There was no way we could have conducted operations without helicopters. There were no roads and with the coastline devastated, there was no other means of transportation. We used helicopters for reconnaissance, moving personnel and goods, and evacuation. In short, we used helicopters for everything – there was no alternative.

Underscoring the value of helicopters in any large-scale response effort is the realization that government resources are extremely thin. Canadian Forces resources in B.C. are limited to the SAR Cormorants stationed at CFB Comox on Vancouver Island and the Sea Kings attached to the ships stationed at CFB Esquimalt. CFB did develop a plan during the freshet planning in 2007 to deploy all available rotary-wing assets in the country to B.C., but those resources are still limited in number and it would take time to move them west. The RCMP operates two AS 350B3s in Greater Vancouver, one AS 350B3 from Kamloops and two Bell 206Ls, one in Comox and one in Kelowna. While the RCMP have been very supportive of the Provincial Emergency Program in planning missions with the use of helicopters and pilots, in a post-disaster environment their primary role would be supporting law enforcement.

Ken Glaze, vice-president of Helijet International, saw a story in the Vancouver Sun quoting provincial emergency program personnel on the anticipated difficulties of moving emergency response personnel around the Greater Vancouver area in the aftermath of a serious earthquake. “It struck me that this is exactly what Helijet is suited for. We think that we are the only commercial operator, with medium and heavy equipment, in the region whose primary area of operations is southwestern British Columbia.” 
Helijet operates daily, year-round scheduled passenger service between Vancouver and Victoria with three Sikorsky S-76As and one Sikorsky S-61N, charter service with  their Bell 206Bs and one Bell 206L3 aircraft, as well as providing the B.C. Air Ambulance Service for the southwest region of the province with two Sikorsky 76As and two Learjet 31As. Subsidiary Pacific Heliport Services, operates the heliport facilities in downtown Victoria and Vancouver.   As operator of the air ambulance service, Helijet has extensive experience in operations into and out of a wide range of ad hoc landing zones, as well as flying at night and in adverse weather conditions.

“I contacted the Provincial Emergency Program and we’ve had a couple of initial meetings. I’d like to think that we could launch one of our Bell 206 machines as soon as possible in the wake of a catastrophic disaster and put it at the disposal of the provincial emergency management people to enable them to do rapid damage assessments or anything they want to do, but we have to learn a lot more before this can be a reality.”

We can see the critical role that commercial helicopters can play in the response and recovery efforts of a major disaster, but you have to be prepared. Prepared to survive an event that occurs within your region and prepared to respond to an event that occurs outside your region.  

Emergency Planning
Emergency planning should not be a foreign concept to any business, especially a business that operates in an environment with a high degree of risk and uncertainty on the best days. Within your geographic region, what are the threats to your business? 

Earthquake, extreme weather, flood, wildfire, etc? If your equipment and infrastructure survive, what is the impact on your staff? Do your staff understand what is expected of them at times such as this, especially if all means of communications are out of order? Are you ready to fly as much as possible for as long as possible? If your normal source of fuel is not available, where could you get alternate supplies? How about servicing your equipment? If you service what you fly, do you have adequate spare parts on hand, not to mention your mechanical staff? If you rely on a third party for service, will they be there if and when the need arises?

This checklist can help you assess whether your business is ready for a big disaster like an earthquake or a smaller disaster like a computer crash or a fire. Answer “yes” or “no” to the following questions:

  • Are you concerned that your normal business operations might be interrupted by a natural or human-caused disaster?

  • Have you determined what parts of your business need to be operational as soon as possible after a disaster, and planned how to resume those operations?

  • Do you and your employees have a disaster response plan to help assure your safety and to take care of yourselves until help can arrive?

  • Could you communicate with your employees if a disaster happened outside their normal working hours?

  • Can your facilities withstand the impact of a natural disaster, and are your contents and property sufficiently protected?

  • Are your vital records protected from the harm that could be caused by a disaster?

  • Are you prepared to stay open for business if your suppliers cannot deliver, your markets are inaccessible, or basic needs (e.g. water, sewer, electricity, transportation) are unavailable?

  • Do you have plans to continue to operate even if senior management cannot reach your place of business?

  • Have you worked with public officials and other businesses in your community to promote disaster preparedness and plan for recovery?

  • Have you consulted with an insurance professional to determine whether your coverage is adequate to help you get back in business after a disaster?

Count your “yes” answers. This will indicate how well prepared you are for the disruption caused by a natural or human-caused disaster.

7 – 10  Good work!
4 – 6      You’re getting warmer!
1 – 3     Get going!

Everybody talks about emergency planning and acknowledges that it  needs to be done, yet far too many businesses have taken no action in creating a plan.  Historically, businesses that fail in the wake of a disaster are those that have failed to plan.  If you are not prepared to protect the interests of your business and your employees, how can you serve your community?

The concept of operations for emergency or disaster response is quite simple.  As individuals, we are responsible for ensuring that we and our families are prepared.  When something happens that is beyond our capabilities, we turn to our local authorities – police, fire, ambulance, etc.  When the scope of the situation is beyond our local muncipal or regional government resources, the province becomes involved and so on, until it becomes a federal or even international response. 

To learn more, consult with your local municipal government or provincial emergency program. Here are some links:

British Columbia Provincial Emergency Program – www.pep.bc.ca – lots of links to personal and family preparedness information.

Public Safety Canada – www.publicsafety.gc.ca – another great source of information at all levels.

After a lifetime in public safety communications, Paul Dixon is a freelance writer/photographer living in North Vancouver, specializing in public safety and emergency management issues. He can be reached at pd.dixon@shaw.ca



Stories continue below

Print this page