Calgary fire chief relates lessons learned from flooding at Kelowna gathering

Speaking to emergency response personnel in Kelonwa, Bruce Burrell says responders need to ready for the unexpected.

Calgary fire chief Bruce Burrell was in Kelowna Thursday to talk about lessons learned from the flooding that hit his southern Alberta city last summer.

When it comes to handling a massive community emergency, two of the men in charge of maintaining regional emergency preparedness say they believe this area is in good shape.

But both Kelowna fire chief Jeff Carlisle and his deputy chief Jason Brolund say despite that, learning lessons from others who have dealt with large-scale emergencies is always a good idea.

“It’s an opportunity to challenge the people in this room to think bigger about what is now in place,” said Brolund.

One Thursday, he and others in the field of emergency response in the Okanagan heard directly from the man in charge of one of Canada’s biggest recent emergency responses, the flooding that his Calgary last summer.

Calgary fire chief Bruce Burrell made a presentation about the massive response to the flooding that crippled Calgary and the astounding and speedy response by the entire Calgary community.

Dealing with unprecedented high water levels in both the Bow and Elbow rivers—which pass through Calgary and several other southern Alberta towns—emergency personnel there had to evacuate more than 80,000 people from 32 communities when the flooding hit.

And, according to Burrell, emergency responders had little time to react.

He said in the span of just 45 minutes on June 20, 2013, flows on the Bow River rose from 700-cubic-metres-per-second to 1,750-cubic-metres-per-second.

Over the course of the next 15 days, the Calgary emergency operations centre dealt with not only the effects of the flooding but seven other major incidents, including the derailment of a train carrying flammable materials on a bridge weakened by the flood waters and damage  to a gas main by rocks violently moved by the rapidly moving waters.

“On a regular day, that alone would have prompted us to open up the EOC,” he said.

Unlike when Kelowna dealt with its wildfire emergency in 2003, the web-based social media service Twitter played a major role in getting information out to the public in Calgary.

Burrell said his EOC had 24 people dealing with social media round the clock for 15 days straight.

He said it was important not only to get information out but also to know what the public was saying.

Brolund said that is one of the biggest lessons this area can learn from what happened in Calgary—how to use social media to keep the public informed in times of emergency and to help responders know what it happening.

In the Calgary situation, about 10 per cent of the that city’s population was affected by the flooding but the entire community came together to not only help deal with it.

Burrell showed a photo of a sign he said summed up the community response in Calgary last summer. It was painted on a piece of plywood wood and nailed to a tree in yard of an elderly couple who lost everything.

It simply said “We lost some stuff. We gained a community. Thank you.”

Burrell said an estimated $228 million was spend over the main 15-day period dealing with fighting the flooding, 90 per cent of which has been recovered from the province of Alberta. But he said when all the damage costs are tallied up, the cost of the flooding and damage could hit as high as $5 billion. An estimated $1.7 billion has already been paid out to home owners and business by insurance companies.

Burrell said while there were plenty of lessons learned despite the fact Calgary, as well as many of its individual organizations and facilities, already had emergency preparedness plans in place, one of the biggest messages he has for other communities preparing for their own possible future large-scale problems is to be ready for the unexpected.

In Calgary, not only were there other issues to contend with such as the seven other serious incidents, but there were on-the-ground problems no one expected as well.

Early in the flooding, water was rising so fast that while police officers and firefighters were evacuating buildings, police cars and firetrucks parked outside were being damaged by the water.

The police department lost 42 police cruisers to the flood waters, and while the firetrucks, being bigger, could be pulled out, they had to be quickly taken into the shop and fixed because their engines and transmissions had filled with water.

Extensive plans had to be put into action to deal with evacuating and housing people during the flooding, returning them to the homes after, dealing with debris after the waters receded, restoring utilities like electricity, gas and other utilities and maintaining health and safety.

Carlisle said here in the Central Okanagan, major preparedness exercises are done yearly to keep abreast of not only ongoing changes that will affect future responses, but also to hone the latest tactics for dealing with large-scale emergencies.

“We have experience and we are well-prepared but that does not mean we can’t stop trying to learn more,” he said.