Canadian Consulting Engineer

When the Earth Moves

May 1, 1999
By Steve Campbell

Fire is one of the worst aftereffects of an earthquake, so on Canada's vulnerable west coast engineers are engaged in a huge effort to ensure they have the necessary infrastructure and water supply in...

Fire is one of the worst aftereffects of an earthquake, so on Canada’s vulnerable west coast engineers are engaged in a huge effort to ensure they have the necessary infrastructure and water supply in case disaster should strike.

The night of the famous World Series earthquake on October 19, 1989 is one that San Francisco Fire Department battalion chief Richard Bracco will never forget. Millions of people saw the terrifying television reports of the massive Marina District fire that ultimately destroyed four buildings. What many don’t know is how close San Francisco came to losing a large part of the city that night.

“I remember it as though it was yesterday,” says Bracco, then a captain who worked 36 hours straight that fateful weekend. “Thankfully, it was a very calm night with no wind. That meant the flames, heat and smoke from the fire went straight up instead of leaping to other buildings. Had there been any wind at all, we undoubtedly would have lost entire blocks because the water supply pipes had collapsed in the Marina District. Our resources were stretched pretty thin.”

Earthquakes are a challenge to fire departments worldwide. For example, the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995 was marked by many raging fires and gas leaks. More recently, in January this year, the earthquake in Colombia crippled the city of Armenia fire service when the fire station collapsed on the city’s fleet of 14 fire vehicles, killing nine senior officers.

Closer to home, recent seismic events confirming British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec as active earthquake zones raise the question of how prepared Canadian fire departments are for a massive earthquake. Considering there have been three major earthquakes in its Pacific Rim sister cities of Los Angeles, Kobe and San Francisco in the last 10 years, Vancouver is a city that should be in a hurry. In fact, millions of dollars have been spent in recent years to confront this disaster. The last decade has seen Vancouver-area fire departments instituting expensive programs to upgrade their fire-fighting capabilities. Nonetheless, serious gaps remain.

Take, for example, Richmond, located below sea level on Lulu Island, a base of alluvial soil surrounded by the Fraser River immediately south of Vancouver. Earthquake experts believe that the shaking of a major earthquake may cause liquefaction and turn Richmond’s soil to “soup.” Regional water engineers believe the city’s water pipes may then break under their own weight as support from the ground gives way, cutting off the water supply to the city’s 148,000 residents and severely limiting its fire-fighting capabilities. Even more alarming, however, is the state of Richmond’s fire halls. Can they survive a series of major seismic shock waves? Unfortunately, Richmond faces a period of uncertainty over the next four to five years.

Richmond’s acting fire chief, Rick Papp, doesn’t mince words. His fire department is vulnerable. “In a major earthquake, four of my eight fire stations will likely turn to dust or be inoperable. We may not be able to get the trucks out of the buildings to fight the fires we know will come. All four stations are scheduled to be replaced over the next few years, but in the meantime, we’re moving forward on other emergency plans to deal with any disaster.”

Of course, despite the tremendous resources applied to prepare Greater Vancouver, there will always be weak links in a port city with more than 20 large bridges, elevated roads and tunnels. A review of Greater Vancouver fire department preparations indicates they are focusing on providing every critical system with a back-up system and putting alternative technologies and plans in place to prepare for the worst.

Overall, disaster planning is fairly advanced, with the Provincial Emergency Program incorporating extensive emergency set-ups at the regional and municipal levels.

Most cities and towns in Greater Vancouver have emergency planners who work in conjunction with fire, police and paramedical services. Region-wide planning over the last decade has led to major capital expenditures being committed to upgrading the city’s older bridges and emergency transportation routes to modern seismic standards.

Vital links

A number of Vancouver consulting engineering firms, such as Buckland and Taylor and Klohn-Crippen, are providing seismic analysis, design upgrades and construction management services as part of a continuing staged program of multi-million-dollar improvements to vital structures. These include the Port Mann and the Ironworkers Memorial bridges (to ensure access to the city along the essential Highway No. 1 link), while within Vancouver, the Oak Street, Granville Street and Burrard Street bridges, and First Avenue Viaduct have been the focus of seismic upgrades. Other bridges throughout the region, such as the Knight Street and Patullo bridges, are targeted for future upgrades. Emergency roadways for military, police, fire, engineering and ambulance vehicles have been designated, and a major program has been enacted to ensure the region’s water supply system is decentralized and thus made less vulnerable.

Vancouver is concentrating on five major areas to ensure continuity between the fire-fighting and emergency rescue services:. These areas are: ensuring that water is available to fight fires; that fire halls and fire equipment can withstand an earthquake; that back-up communications systems are organized; that citizen volunteer teams are trained for emergency rescue duties; and that detailed emergency plans are in place and kept up to date. It’s this last point that is now a top priority in San Francisco.

“It is vital to check these plans on a yearly basis to make sure they are current,” warns Richard Bracco, who was in charge of the recent effort to modernize the San Francisco fire department’s emergency plans. “We’ve just finished the exercise of updating our plan and found one incident in which private contractors, who were to ferry firefighters across the bay to their fire halls in case the bridges were closed, were no longer available to deliver this service. It could have been disastrous. Once you lose the initial sense of urgency, plans can go stale quickly, so it’s important to make sure there are back-ups for every aspect.”

In Greater Vancouver emergency planning across the region is well advanced. Improving equipment and training, and “hardening” the fire halls and water supply, can quickly lead to tremendous capital costs — all to prepare for scenarios that may not occur for many years or even decades. But, as in the case of Richmond, not making these expenditures or not having contingency plans could create an extreme risk.

“Old-timer” fire halls

In the Managua earthquake in the 1970s, fire trucks couldn’t exit the central fire station; the earthquake had damaged the doors. And, as the Colombia quake showed, the collapse of a fire hall can seriously injure firefighters and decimate the department’s response capability. Seismic building standards have been enhanced considerably over the last few decades, exposing the serious weaknesses of Vancouver’s heritage fire halls (they which once held horse-drawn fire-fighting wagons). Five of the City of Vancouver’s 20 fire halls are “old-timers” that date back to the early 1900s, and they aren’t expected to survive an earthquake without suffering damage that may render them inoperable.

Lieutenant Roy Bissett is the point man for the City of Vancouver fire department’s preparations. “All these buildings will be replaced over the next decade. It’s difficult to speed up the spending process as there are many demands on the public purse. It can be frustrating at times, but efforts are being made to upgrade all our resources simultaneously.”

Besides Richmond, several municipalities around Vancouver have identified fire halls as being at high risk. Capital expenditure plans are in place to reinforce or replace them, again over an extended period of time. Fortunately, population growth in the Greater Vancouver area has mostly occurred in the last two decades, meaning t
hat many of the fire halls in the younger communities outside the central core have been constructed to modern standards. In Delta, south of Richmond, for example, three of six halls are at post-disaster levels. One will be replaced this year, and a brand new fire hall will be built in 2000.

Maintaining the water supply

The work of fighting the San Francisco Marina District fire was hampered by collapsing underground water supply lines. The city’s fireboat had to be brought to the Marina waterfront and used to draught water and pump it through a five-inch above-ground hose that stretched a mile into the fire zone. Portable hydrants allowed fire fighters access to water as required.

In Greater Vancouver, an impressive effort is being made to ensure that water will be available to handle fire-fighting emergencies. Vancouver engineers Klohn-Crippen were the lead Canadian participants in an international team of consultants that conducted a comprehensive “Lifeline Study” of the region’s water supply. This study reviewed the vulnerability of the regional water supply in an earthquake and dealt with a whole range of issues while making recommendations for action.

One strategy to reduce the region’s vulnerability involves the 22 in-ground “balancing” reservoirs that are located strategically in municipalities throughout the region. While it is not their main purpose, the reservoirs can act as a back-up water supply in case the regional water system linking Vancouver to its three principal mountain water supplies is compromised. These reservoirs are being evaluated and upgraded in an ongoing multi-year program. The Vancouver firm of Sandwell Inc. is handling much of the structural work, with Klohn-Crippen, EBA Engineering, and Golder Associates doing the geotechnical work. Upgrades in the enclosed reservoirs typically involve installing lateral-sway bracing internally to support the columns that hold up each reservoir’s roof.

Another area of focus is the seismic vulnerability of the dams holding the region’s water supply in the North Shore mountains. Klohn-Crippen upgraded the Cleveland Dam to withstand an earthquake in 1992, for example, and together with Acres International are doing assessment and design upgrades for the Seymour Falls dam. Here they have to bolster the foundations and the density of the earth-filled portion of the dam’s west side and strengthen vulnerable areas in the concrete portion. Work is ongoing.

In addition, redundancies have been built into the major region-wide pipeline system so that water can be re-routed around major breaks. Although Greater Vancouver Water District officials feel confident their large pipes can withstand a moderate earthquake without rupturing, they are concerned about the marine crossing points around the Burrard Inlet and Fraser River. The lowlands and foreshores are ideal locations for liquefaction, which could lead to tremendous stress on the pipes as ground support gives way.

Within individual municipalities, the water pipeline distribution systems are a worry. Many systems use a typical gasketed joint assembly method where pipes are slipped together, which means there is a lack of longitudinal or axial restraint. The ground shifts in an earthquake may cause the pipes to slip apart, disrupting the supply of water at a critical time. Although efforts are being made to rectify the situation, fire departments have already instituted programs to work around any breakages that may occur.

In Delta, contingency plans are in place to have a barge and dredging pump (normally used to dredge silt from the river bottom) available to push water along a 24-inch pipe to fire trucks. This barge can be moved to any location along the river foreshore surrounding the city. Further, the city recently reactivated its spring water well system as an alternate water source. Richmond has a similar floating barge and pump concept ready to go. In Burnaby, to the east of Vancouver, a fireboat is available to deal with any fires at the major refineries on the Burrard Inlet north of the city. Many fire trucks throughout the region can draw water from a variety of sources, not just from the in-ground municipal hydrant system.

Downtown Vancouver, with its tall residential towers and office buildings, presents a special challenge to the Vancouver Fire Department. Among other measures, the city has recently constructed two large saltwater pumping stations on the water at the south and north sides of the downtown core. With flexible connections and joined to a 24-inch welded steel pipeline, this state-of-the-art system is expected to withstand ground deformations without breaking. The conceptual design of the system and detailed design of the pump stations was performed by a team of sub-contractor specialists led by MTR Consultants of Vancouver. Omni Engineering did the detailed design work of the pipeline.

Emergency planner Roy Bissett notes that the $50 million project is still a work-in-progress: “Plans are to extend this pipeline system around False Creek to reach the south shore areas of Fairview Slopes and Kitsilano and to the Victoria Drive area.”

In addition to a wide variety of emergency supplies and special equipment, the Vancouver Fire Department also has a mile of portable five-inch hose with above-ground hydrants loaded on a hose tender in a fire hall. The long-term plan is to have firefighters set up above-ground hydrant systems in many different locations throughout the city.

Hardening communications systems

During the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, the California state-wide emergency broadcast system failed after one broadcast. Due to the volume of calls coming into the fire department’s communication centre, system managers were forced to “crash” the computer-aided despatch and resort to the old-style system, using handwritten notes on filing cards. Vancouver-area fire departments are planning to avoid such a communications breakdown with back-up systems that include cellular phones, satellite telephones, amateur ham radios and even, if all else fails, “runners” to move messages by bicycle.

To ensure command centres stay operational, most cities have alternate emergency operation command centres, backed up by mobile fire department command vehicles. A new regional emergency communications centre called ECOMM in east Vancouver on Pender Street opened last year. One of North America’s most advanced communications buildings, it will be the nerve centre ground zero for coordinating response.

After an earthquake, more than 90 per cent of rescues are immediate actions by well-meaning neighbours and bystanders, so trained volunteer emergency teams are a crucial ingredient of any disaster effort. In San Francisco, for example, hundreds of volunteers were used to unroll the lengthy portable fire hose from the fireboat to quell the Marina District fire. But volunteering can be dangerous: in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, scores of volunteers lost their lives in spontaneous rescue efforts. The answer lies in providing training and education to the public in advance, so the Greater Vancouver Emergency Planners Committee is putting the final touches on the neighbourhood emergency preparedness Program (or NEPP), a region-wide initiative. Many experts think it could be the most valuable program of all.

So, with all these programs, are Vancouver-area fire departments prepared for a major earthquake? No one knows for sure. Clearly, a major investment is being made in upgrading facilities and services to withstand such a crisis. Yet, a window of vulnerability will remain for a period. For Greater Vancouver firefighters, it’s a wait that could be excruciating: most experts agree that a catastrophic earthquake will strike Canada’s Pacific Coast at any point during the next 200 years — beginning right now.CCE

Steve Campbell is a Vancouver-based communications consultant and writer who specializes in business and public issues. E-mail:


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