Theory became reality for many of Calgary’s building owners and managers late last week as flood waters inundated low-lying areas of the city. The rapid onset of the crisis startled residents and outside observers alike but emergency preparedness experts note that it’s neither an implausible nor unforeseen event in a downtown set in the valley of two rivers.
“There is typically an incident review after the fact and everyone asks, ‘Could we have expected it?’,” says Jason Reid, principal consultant with National Life Safety Group, whose client base includes properties in Calgary. “We don’t want to plan for doom and gloom but we want to plan for events that are likely and could happen. Each crisis is different but there are steps that are mutually implementable for almost every property in an emergency situation.”
A state of emergency in Canada’s fourth most populous city had its business operators turning to their own crisis management and business contingency plans.
“We activated our crisis team Thursday morning when flooding remained only a possibility at High River,” reports Rich Coleman, director of security, health, safety and environment with Brookfield Johnson Controls. “We have been able to save some critical client sites through quick deployment of sandbags and flood tubes. Critical facilities with emergency standby power systems are receiving a regular re-supply of diesel fuel.”
For downtown commercial buildings, at least the timing was fortunate since the core was largely empty when the crisis became apparent and it could be declared off-limits before the workday began on Friday. More than 20 major office complexes were among businesses closed, while Calgarians anxiously watched the rising level of the Bow River.
A further Friday morning update from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Calgary advised all non-essential employees to stay out of the area. By late day, with electricity shutoff in the flooded zones, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi projected it could be mid-week before the workforce could return to the downtown.
“It highlights the importance of emergency planning and risk management because when you have these situations, they take precedence over everything else,” says Chris Conway, president and chief staff officer of BOMA Toronto. “You need good planning, good communications and, of course, you have to respect what the authorities are saying.”
Although spared from overseeing large-scale evacuations, Calgary building owners and managers face water damage threats to property, including to sensitive electrical and mechanical systems, plus possible after-effects such as mould growth. Once the immediate emergency ebbs, industry insiders predict there could also be a scramble for disaster recovery services.
“All your neighbours are experiencing the same emergency and your neighbours might be using the same responders you need. It’s important to have the conversation ahead of time with your suppliers,” advises Brett Reddock, president of the emergency planning and response consultancy, Unparalleled Technologies. “You can be prepared. A good plan allows you to understand what’s going to be important, what you’ll need to do within the first hours and what you’re going to need to recover.”
For example, Brookfield Johnson Controls now has both contracted service providers and a crew of its own technicians working on two continuous shifts in Calgary.
“We also have project management, general contractors and remediation teams on standby to assist once flood waters recede,” adds Coleman.
Self-reliance in the early stage of a crisis is one of the fundaments of civil emergency planning. Residents and businesses not in immediate danger are typically expected to look after themselves for the first 72 hours, while emergency responders focus on public safety. In Calgary, local officials’ priority was overseeing the more than 25 communities under mandatory evacuation order along the Bow and Elbow rivers.
However, National Life Safety Group’s Reid stresses that local authorities typically welcome questions and consultation as businesses develop their own emergency plans. This can help to mitigate perceived communications vacuums in an actual event.
“Most municipalities, including the City of Calgary, have engaged their private sector and want to make sure building owners and managers are resilient,” he says.
Every crisis also presents an opportunity to learn, refine plans and improve practices.
“For those impacted, there is direct learning. Once it happens, it’s not theoretical anymore,” says Unparalleled Technologies’ Reddock. “For property managers, there may be a follow-up discussion about what worked and didn’t work, and that might promote discussion within the overall organization.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management magazine.