OHS Canada Magazine

In the Eye

September 7, 2011

Hazmat Emergency Preparedness and Response

On its own, a disaster can exact a heavy toll. But single events are often exacerbated by compounding occurrences, creating a line of falling dominoes that can combine to drive human, financial and property costs higher still.

On its own, a disaster can exact a heavy toll. But single events are often exacerbated by compounding occurrences, creating a line of falling dominoes that can combine to drive human, financial and property costs higher still.

The Japan crisis this past March is a case in point: torrents of water unleashed by an earthquake-triggered tsunami prompted a nuclear crisis that put countless individuals and organizations on alert, leaving them anxiously watching which way the wind blows to prepare for (but hopefully avoid) a blanket of radioactivity. 

While Canada has escaped disasters the magnitude of which recently rocked Japan, it cannot be assumed the world’s second largest country is immune to Mother Nature’s wrath. The British Columbia and Yukon Territory coastlines abut the Ring of Fire, a ribbon characterized by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the basin of the Pacific Ocean; hurricanes regularly hammer Atlantic Canada; and the newness of spring often brings the age-old threat of flooding to the Prairies.

Changing times

Just last September, Hurricane Igor – touted here at home as the storm of the century – barely kissed the easternmost edge of Newfoundland and Labrador, but still delivered a wallop. Rain pelted the eastern peninsulas, causing widespread flooding, while peak wind reaching speeds of 170 kilometres per hour uprooted trees. “This was effectively a 50- to 100-year event, depending on how one chooses to define it,” notes a meteorological assessment from Environment Canada in Ottawa.


To many people in the province, Igor got personal. There was damage, inconvenience and disruption to infrastructure, services and businesses. For homeowners, the impact ranged from claims for damaged driveways and belongings to permanent loss of homes, the provincial government reported last November.

“As we work with residents, adjusters, engineers and contractors, we are putting back the pieces following such an unprecedented event in our province’s history,” Kevin O’Brien, minister of municipal affairs in St. John’s, said at the time. 

Igor left a mark, but it will not be the last for the province, the region or the country. Natural forces are joining with man-made elements, such as aging infrastructure, to form a perfect storm. Is Canada prepared?

While some parts of the globe have been harder hit than others, climate change has ushered in increasingly common severe weather worldwide. What was once cyclical weather is now more likely to be extreme.

O’Brien recalls being riveted seven years ago when an earthquake triggered the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, laying waste to parts of Asia’s shores. “I said to myself, ‘I will never see another one of these in my lifetime.’ Well, guess what? I’ve already seen the second one,” he says of the recent Japan experience.

“The science is pretty clear that we will be seeing more severe weather events in Canada,” says Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), a research institute for disaster prevention in Toronto. ICLR projections of climate trends for Canada between 2010 and 2050 are not promising: coastal British Columbia will see eight to 15 per cent more intense windstorms; wildfires and lightning will become more common in central Alberta; there will be 60 to 85 per cent more freezing rain events in Northern Ontario; the intensity and frequency of hurricanes in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island will increase; and glaciers in western Nunavut will continue to lose mass.  

“Not only will we see more severe weather events, but we will also see a higher degree of frequency,” says Richard Kinchlea, director of operations for the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness (CCEP) in Burlington, Ontario. 

But how will all this nasty weather negatively influence businesses and their employees?

Questionable support

“It really is a subjective question,” says Kinchlea, who takes the view that Canada is quite well-prepared despite not having experienced many devastating weather emergencies, relatively speaking. That said, it is “also a drawback because we also don’t have the experience of [response].”

Beyond this lack of experience, however, may be an absence of basics. A 2009 quarterly survey conducted by Angus Reid found that small business owners in Canada are ill-prepared for local disruptive events. As many as 70 per cent of respondents were not familiar with the concept of business continuity planning, while 58 per cent were not prepared for events, such as floods, fires or illness outbreaks.

The CCEP also reports that as much as 86 per cent of small businesses fail within three years of a major incident if no tested plan is in place.

Determining preparedness is a question that is “largely theoretical,” McGillivray suggests. Consider the ice storm that pummelled eastern Ontario and western Quebec in early January, 1998. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, because we were talking mostly about a lack of electricity and not a lot of destruction,” he says. 

The destruction comes with how this weather-beating can affect buildings and infrastructure that, usually, serve as protection. Says Kinchlea, “A weather emergency is only an emergency when it interacts [with] and impacts humanity.”

While homeowners are advised to have an emergency kit and stockpile enough food for 72 hours after a disaster, it is not clear that caution has translated to the workplace, where many people spend a large chunk of their time.

Aging infrastructure is a sore point for McGillivray, who argues that governments have failed to invest enough resources to maintain, let alone improve, critical infrastructure. 

He cites Vancouver as an example. In the central business district, there is a prevalence of transformers mounted on wooden poles mere inches from commercial buildings, notes a 2010 report from the ICLR. “Vancouver appears to be the only major city in North America that has not relocated its electric transmission underground in the city core,” it adds.

The situation presents a “unique vulnerability,” since past earthquake experience shows that pole-mounted transformers have arced and exploded, resulting in many ignitions. 

The report identifies Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria and Quebec City as among the Canadian cities with a “high or moderate risk of experiencing a large earthquake.” Since office towers are workplaces for hundreds or thousands of people, workers’ safety could be at risk.

While modern building codes have reduced the risk of loss for newer homes and buildings, the ICLR suggests that Canada’s public infrastructure remains highly vulnerable following decades of underinvestment. 

An engineering report, released in March, paints a disturbing picture of Montreal’s Champlain Bridge. The report, prepared by Delcan in Toronto, notes that the bridge “has many deficiencies, some of which are very significant.” Serving as a critical link for heavy vehicular traffic, its continued use “entails some risks which cannot altogether be quantified.” 

The analyses indicate deterioration observed in the edge girders and in many other bridge elements will progress at an increased rate. The loss of an edge girder in the approach spans could result in its progressive collapse, the report adds.

“What would happen if there is a bigger earthquake in Montreal?” McGillivray asks. “We have to think about retrofitting these [structures] against hazards,” he cautions.

Even with run-of-the-mill storms, “we’re seeing that the older infrastructure can’t keep up with the new weather we’ve been getting and will get in the future,” McGillivray contends. 

Then and now

But beyond that, McGillivray questions Ottawa’s ability to provide support services to provincial and local response teams in the event of an emergency. “We
‘re very concerned that the response is going to be kind of ad hoc,” he says.  

That is the very situation the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) was created in 2005 to avoid. Co-funded by Natural Resources Canada and Engineers Canada, the job of the PIEVC is to evaluate the vulnerability of infrastructure to climate change from an engineering perspective. Infrastructure falls into four categories: buildings; roads and associated structures; water resources; and storm water and wastewater systems. 

“The idea is to analyze climate information to determine the chances of certain climatic events happening that exceed the design thresholds of the building component,” says Ottawa-based David Lapp, PIEVC secretary and manager of professional practice for Engineers Canada. 

But infrastructure designed with historical climatic values may no longer be relevant. “You’ve designed this infrastructure to last 25 years, but because of accelerated effects of weather, it only lasts 20 years,” Lapp says. He cites the national highway bridge design code as an example of “very old climatic information, which may not be representative of what is needed.” 

History is important to take into account, but so too is how conditions are evolving. Flooding is something with which Manitoba is all too aware, but warmer temperatures and the loss of snow cover is working in concert to raise the intensity of this seasonal event. 

The provincial government declared a state of emergency in May in response to high rainfall and increased flows on the Assiniboine River. Hard choices had to be made, and it was decided to execute a controlled release through the south side of the Assiniboine dikes on May 14 to prevent the possibility of an uncontrolled breach that would put 850 homes at risk.

The vulnerability of the Assiniboine and Portage rivers was addressed in PIEVC’s first national assessment report in 2008. It suggested Portage la Prairie’s response to floods be reviewed and river vulnerability assessed. 

But, says Lapp, taking into account climate’s impact prior to finalizing engineering designs and modifications is not “necessarily a regular thought process for people.” 

It comes down to what risk is deemed acceptable. “Pay me now or pay me later,” he says, referring to hefty costs incurred following a June, 2005 flooding in Toronto. An aging storm drain was overwhelmed by severe rainfall, carving a massive hole under a major roadway.

Peter Nimmrichter, senior water resources engineer at AMEC Earth & Environmental in Mississauga, Ontario, pegs drainage structures in Toronto at zero to 100 years. “They are putting brand new ones underground,” Nimmrichter says, but old structures are still part of the mix. 

Making headway

In hurricane-prone Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador has learned through the school of hard knocks that maintaining and retrofitting infrastructure makes a difference. 

Municipal affairs minister Kevin O’Brien says infrastructure upgrades made in the wake of 2007’s Hurricane Chantal stood up well during Hurricane Igor. “We learned that it is not good enough to just replace as was before – we have to think about these events happening in the future and increase the capacity of our infrastructure requirements too,” the minister says.

Also, O’Brien emphasizes, “you’ve got to communicate, communicate, communicate.” 

Early warning facilitated by efficient and effective communication systems will become all the more critical as severe weather events occur  more often. Nova Scotia is currently undergoing a major upgrade of its 9-1-1 system, scheduled to be up and running next April.

“We are seeing the end of [its] service life,” says Mike Myette, director of emergency services with the Emergency Management Office in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. “We’re keeping our eye on changes in the telecommunications industry and making sure that we prepare for new evolving technology to be able to answer calls in new ways,” Myette says. Enabling call centres to receive text messages is also in the works.

Nova Scotia is also close to having in place a provincial emergency alerting system, known as the National Alerting Aggregation and Dissemination Service (NAADS). All radio stations across the province will be provided with equipment that enables emergency officers to send urgent alerts direct to air, says Myette. 

“There’s a direct relationship between speed with which people get notified and reduced property damage and loss of lives,” he says. 

Ken Macdonald, executive director of national service, operations at Meteorological Services Canada in Ottawa, says efforts are currently under way to enlist more emergency management agencies to use the system. 

Owned and operated by Pelmorex Communications Inc., the NAADS encodes a public alert via an international standard coding that geo-references the information and delivers it only to people in the immediate area of risk. “So it’s not going to, for example, interrupt programming in Winnipeg because of a tornado warning in Lethbridge,” Macdonald explains.

Alberta is also on the cusp of launching a new public warning system, slated for this September. The idea is to work with municipalities and other stakeholders to modernize and enhance the Emergency Public Warning System, says John Muir, a spokesperson for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency in Edmonton. 

Back in business 

Planning for business continuity and recovery in the event of a disaster can influence whether or not a business survives and thrives. Figures from the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) in Tampa note that at least a quarter of small businesses struck by a natural disaster never reopen. Operations with fewer than 10 employees are especially vulnerable since resources may not have been available to assess disaster risks and develop mitigation and recovery plans. 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, O’Brien says a number of small businesses were greatly damaged by Igor. 

Noting that medium to large-sized firms generally have things well in hand, McGillivray suggests there is more concern with small businesses. “Let’s face it: if you are the owner and the only employee or you only have a few employees, you tend to be quite busy, and you just may not be thinking about business continuity.”

As of January, almost 1,700 personal and small business applications for assistance claims had been received by Newfoundland and Labrador’s Fire and Emergency Services, with more than half completed or nearing completion, says a statement from Fire and Emergency Services. O’Brien says that an evaluation will be done to “take the full lessons that are learned from Igor and make sure that we address those issues on a go-forward basis.”

Emergency preparedness is a journey, “not an end state,” Kinchlea suggests. “We can’t ever, ever say we’re done; we are prepared.”  (Follow us on Twitter@OHSCanada)   

Jean Lian is assistant editor of ohs canada.


Open for Business

The Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) in Tampa offers a variety of tools under its “Open for Business” program to help reduce the potential for loss and to help small business owners resume operations. The Toronto-based Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) has an agreement with IBHS to employ some of these strategies in Canada.

Beyond completing a self-assessment to gauge preparedness, the ICLR recommends that any business continuity plan feature the following elements: 

  • Communication: Compile a contact list of employees, suppliers, vendors and other key contacts (such as banks, insurance agents and business partners), taking into account
    the telecommunications equipment needed to communicate with these key contacts.
  • Core functions: Identify critical business functions and the records that are vital to their continued performance, how this information is being stored and backed up, and whether or not the data can be recreated if original source material is destroyed.
  • Critical numbers: List telephone and fax lines critical to business survival and ensure these numbers are continuously available.
  • Alternative site(s): Identify a recovery location where business operations can continue following an emergency (more than one location may be required).
  • Essential equipment: Develop a list of the supplies, key equipment, machinery, hardware and software necessary to fulfill critical business functions and the quantity needed.
  • Operational mode: List any basic equipment that will be needed at the recovery site, including office furniture, safes and mail bins.


Flow waters

How would existing drainage infrastructure and storm water systems fare in the face of more frequent and intense downpours? 

Paulin Coulibaly, Ph.D, an associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, conducted a study for the provincial Ministry of Transportation in 2005 on how climate change affects the future design standards of drainage infrastructure. 

Dr. Coulibaly determined that most storm drainage systems are designed for a 10-year return period – meaning the system will be flooded at least once in 10 years. 

“What we are seeing is structure that was designed for a 20-year storm will become, [with] climate change, a 10-year structure,” explains Dr. Coulibaly. “This means if you design a structure and you plan that it will only be flooded once in 20 years, that will change to one in 10 years.” 

Storm sewers divert surface water into sewers and rivers to prevent flooding on roadways, but in severe rainstorms, the drainage system may be overwhelmed. To maintain the present level of operational capability in the southern part of Ontario, Dr. Coulibaly recommends increasing the pipe diameter of the commonly used 10-year drainage system.


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