Solid and Shaky

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In the last few years, major earthquakes have shaken Haiti, Japan and New Zealand. And scientists say it is likely to happen here. Victoria is located in an area of major geologic activity, where three tectonic plates meet and prime earthquake conditions exist. When the shake happens, it will likely be a minimum of a class seven on the Richter scale — as damaging as any earthquake to hit in the last decade — or stronger, up to a class nine, an earthquake of extreme magnitude.

UVic’s response is an Incident Command System (ICS) plan. The system is not based around actions; it establishes a chain of command to deal with all emergencies. “If you have a structure which is flexible, you can respond to everything,” says Daphne Donaldson, UVic’s manager of emergency planning. There are five groups in an ICS plan: command, operations, planning, logistics, and finance and administration.

Command is more than who is in charge. Command sets goals, directs overall strategies and monitors responder safety. Most importantly, command ensures responses are co-ordinated and liases with outside agencies, such as police and firefighters.

In UVic’s plan, as in all ICS plans, the first responder on scene is the first to be given command status. In any building on campus, this is the Building Emergency Co-ordinator (BEC). The BECs are volunteers who are in charge of their designated building’s response to an emergency of any kind. UVic calls this position an “Incident Commander.” The BEC is supported by the volunteer Floor Emergency Co-ordinators (FECs) — individuals responsible for one floor (or a portion of one floor) in a building. UVic’s Emergency Response Plan (ERP) instructs FECs to wear “orange reflective vests with UVic and their building name identified on the back.”

In a small-scale incident, command may extend no further than the BEC, one or two personnel from UVic’s emergency management division and the head of a team of first responders, such as a fire chief. But earthquakes tend to be large.

The next step of command is to activate the Site Response Team (SRT). The ERP states “the [SRT] is comprised of approximately 25 members of Campus Security, Facilities Management, Occupational Health, Safety & Environment, University Communications, the manager of Emergency Planning, the Building Emergency Co-ordinator and other departments, such as Housing, Food and Conference Services as appropriate.” This command group, however, cannot be in more than one place at a time. In an earthquake, there will likely be multiple buildings damaged, and the SRT will not be able to feasibly respond. An earthquake’s destruction is too great.

Fortunately, there is another system in place: the activation of an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). According to the ERP, “the EOC team is comprised of staff and faculty from across the campus.” It consists of 20–30 personnel and co-ordinates the overall response.

The EOC can be activated in two stages. The first would be a partial activation of half the centre (housed in the Social Sciences and Mathematics building). This would create a central command node for a multi-building emergency. The second would be a full activation of the entire centre. This would take place if the entire campus were involved in a catastrophic event, such as an earthquake. Under such circumstances, the EOC is guided by the Executive Policy group — the university president and vice-presidents.

Command is backed by operations. Operations handles the on-site responses to implement the goals and strategies command has set. It includes fire, police, health and environmental branches, and in the case of an earthquake, will handle building assessments. Operations makes tactical decisions and deals with the short-term.

Command and operations are supported by the last three branches: planning, logistics, and finance and administration. Planning collects information, makes analyses and creates long-term strategies. All documentation is handled by planning, as is finding technical specialists — say, people to evaluate buildings. Both command and operations use the information and analyses from planning to make their decisions. Logistics handles resources, both personnel and material. Most critically, logistics is in charge of transportation and communications systems. Finance and administration monitors the cost of response and reports it to command, handles the purchasing for logistics and all other branches and deals with insurance claims.

The Christchurch Parallel

On Sept. 4, 2010, and again on Feb. 22, 2011, the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, was hit by earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.1 and 6.3, respectively. Christchurch and Victoria share many similarities, most notably a similarity in architecture. The destruction caused by the New Zealand quakes reflects what may happen to Victoria under similar circumstances.

Moreover, Christchurch’s University of Canterbury (UC) is similar in size and campus type to UVic. The challenges surmounted and problems solved at UC provide valuable lessons for UVic. In fact, UVic sent a delegation to UC in March 2012 specifically to learn from their recovery process so that UVic’s might be improved. In June, UVic’s delegates presented the most important lessons they learned.

At Christchurch, the first response was prompt and efficient. Both quakes happened near the start of term, and both quakes did not seriously impact residence buildings. Unlike UVic, UC has a campus emergency evacuation plan, and drills had been run; the campus evacuation went as smoothly as could be expected in the circumstances. UVic lacks a campus-wide evacuation plan; it has evacuation plans for specific buildings. Moreover, UVic has never run a campus-wide evacuation drill. However, Donaldson’s team is currently working on a campus-wide evacuation plan.

Location, Location, Location

The UC EOC is located in a wood-frame house on the edge of campus. The building has the advantage of being easily accessible and is unlikely to be affected by the same sorts of perils that might affect more central buildings (bomb threats etc.). In the event of an earthquake, wood frames are resilient to shaking and easy to evaluate as safe to enter.

UVic has no equivalent facility; the UVic EOC is in a geomatics lab on the second floor of the SSM Building. While the SSM Building is new, with a high standard of earthquake resilience built in, it is large and made of concrete. It is more difficult to certify as safe to enter quickly. The advantages of UVic’s EOC are the easy collaboration it fosters, access to many computers, emergency generator power outlets available and the geography department’s willingness to let the EOC team use as many rooms in its department as needed. According to Donaldson, there are ongoing discussions about moving the EOC, but for now it remains where it is, along with a store of tools such as radios and campus and building maps that are potentially inaccessible after a quake. There are few backups for these tools; the secondary EOC, located in the Business and Economics Building, has a good selection, but not as many as the one in SSM. In the event of a catastrophic earthquake, the president of UVic or the delegated decision-maker on scene may be faced with the difficult choice of whether or not to send an individual or team to retrieve crucial equipment from a building that may injure or trap them.

Assuming the EOC is activated and operating, it will require power, which may not be available from B.C. Hydro depending on the severity of the quake’s effect on power plants and lines. UVic has emergency generators, but they run on fuel.

“Herein lies an important key issue for us,” says Donaldson. “Fuel will become a critical item.” Fuel will fall under provincial control, as per the provincial emergency plans. Compared to police, hospitals and other critical services, UVic will not have a high priority for fuel, though Facilities Management does have its own stores. In a catastrophic disaster, UVic will not have enough fuel to run everything continuously and will need to ration fuel carefully for the EOC, communications equipment and vehicles.


UC’s residence buildings were relatively untouched by the quake. At UVic, we may not be so fortunate. Some older buildings have not been retrofitted for earthquakes, as UVic is waiting on a possible retrofitting plan from the government for all B.C. post-secondary institutions.

In the worst-hit areas in the downtown core of Christchurch (the red zone), some buildings were so unsafe to enter they were demolished. No one was permitted to enter them. No personal effects whatsoever were recovered before the buildings were flattened. Whole hotels were levelled with their furniture and guests’ luggage inside. This may happen to some residences or other on-campus buildings if the quake is severe enough.

Students may be displaced in an earthquake. There are individuals who take buses to school or drive from out of town who may not be able to make it home because of damage to roads. Serious thought needs to be given to providing emergency shelter to those in residence and those who may be stranded on campus.

Tents are an option. But in winter they could be cold, draughty and, if the only flooring is dirt, muddy. Tents placed on turf would avoid most of the mud issue. Prefabricated buildings and shipping crates could also be utilized — in Christchurch, both were used extensively; whole malls, complete with boutiques, restaurants and cafés were built from shipping containers. But these take time to transport.

Though Resident Services is capable of housing some students put out of accommodations by disaster, UVic should consider further developing a plan to regroup earthquake victims. Cluster residences are ideal for this purpose. Cluster is comprised of multiple newer, wood-frame buildings. Their size and construction make them easier to evaluate, so it would be possible to house people in the living rooms, and perhaps place more than one person on cots in a bedroom. The centre of the cluster rings could be used to set up food, medical or other services distribution.

Talk Emergency to Me

In a crisis like an earthquake, people often feel disoriented, confused, helpless and lost. Victims are sent into a spiral of worry, worst-case assumptions and even depression. Rumours may spread, leading to panic and mass confusion.

To combat this, communication is a crucial tool. “It is of critical importance to communicate with our campus community,” says Donaldson. Following UC’s lead, UVic’s website is the primary means of communication to the student body in a disaster scenario. The backup servers for UVic are currently located in Calgary; the website should stay up through the crisis. The university’s website allows for rapid updating. Like UC’s emergency site, the website used will probably be a simplified version.

UVic director of communications Bruce Kilpatrick warns that, if a deadline is set for posting information, it needs to be one that is easily met, otherwise anger and frustration build in the community. He also said conventional media is a powerful means of information dispersal and should not be forgotten. There are plans post-quake to partner with CFUV to disperse information by radio.

 The Long Road to Recovery

The initial response to an earthquake — pulling people out of buildings, setting up tent cities and providing basic necessities — has been likened to a sprint. Re-building has been likened to a marathon.

There are more than 30 buildings on UVic’s main campus that would have to be evaluated, then repaired or demolished. UVic’s library would be in the same position as UC’s post-quake; all the library books would require re-sorting. Classes would have to be resumed, but finding locations for lectures and labs would prove a challenge — many buildings would probably not be certified safe to enter.

At UC, it took three weeks to resume classes. Many were taught in tents and pre-fabricated buildings — buildings that are similar to UVic’s old S-Hut (but new and hence in better shape). There are still two semi-permanent “villages” of 100 prefab buildings on the UC campus that have an estimated 15–20 year lifespan. UC estimates it has 25 per cent less building space than it had before the quake.

After each aftershock, buildings have to be systematically evaluated and declared safe or unsafe. At peak response, there were 30 structural engineers on the UC campus evaluating buildings. Each aftershock required them to start over. One year later, there were still 18 engineers assessing and advising. Currently, Facilities Management at UVic is looking for a company to partner with for evaluating buildings post-quake. They are hoping to find a national company that can dispatch resources and personnel from outside the quake zone. UVic is also currently examining the grounds for places to erect temporary structures like tents. Donaldson says UVic already has a few tents for emergency use, but she does not necessarily consider them a good idea in Victoria because of weather concerns.

Studying and Working

UC found it was difficult to hold classes in tents. They are difficult to light, and many supplies have to be found to set up a classroom. But, even more than location, scheduling was an enormous issue, placing great stress and pressure on those responsible. An academic team was set up to handle scheduling, and while they set it up quickly, they were forced to constantly change it. Aftershocks changed the availability of buildings; evaluations made more space available, and so did construction of more and more prefabs. Students had to check their class schedule each day — classes changed rooms every day. To relieve this difficulty, some students were sent on temporary exchanges abroad. While efforts were made to ensure they went back to UC, some stayed abroad. UC’s enrolment is down approximately 10 per cent since the quake.


Post-quake faculty may have more issues than students. While many students only have to worry about their schooling and can go home to locations out of the quake zone, many faculty live close to campus and in areas that could be impacted. Their houses could be destroyed or damaged; there are stories from Christchurch of faculty members only having access to showers at school. They have the stress of insurance issues at home and work. Their life’s work may have been destroyed or damaged; researchers’ unique apparatus may have been shattered and require painful rebuilding. Their building may be scheduled for demolition, and they may not be allowed inside to recover equipment, papers or personal effects. At UC, the commerce department lost not only its building, but 18 per cent of staff, who chose to go elsewhere to restart their lives.

To speed the process of recovery, every department at UVic has continuity plans. Theoretically, these detail the books, research apparatus and other equipment in the department. In the event of a disaster such as an earthquake, this equipment will be easy to catalogue for the insurers and easier to replace — just order the equipment with the recorded numbers. If the plan is done correctly, there’s no one going, “Which centrifuge? There’s a dozen we could order.” Under the vice-president of finance, UVic has an entire division, Risk Management & Insurance, to handle these plans.

Quake Brain

“Quake Brain” is a term that residents of Christchurch and those at UC use for a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by the earthquakes and repeated aftershocks. This is the same disorder experienced by survivors of war. There are three major classes of symptoms: reliving, avoidance and arousal.

Reliving is just that — reliving the event. Common symptoms include flashbacks and nightmares; in Christchurch, the frequent aftershocks triggered strong flashbacks in some people, followed by individuals panicking or breaking down in fear.

Avoidance is more subtle — it is characterized by a detached, emotional numbing and a lack of interest in normal activities. It can include a loss of hope and belief in the future. Many people who left Christchurch or UC may have done so due to this symptom.

Finally, there is arousal — being jumpy or nervous, having troubles sleeping and being angry or irritable. There are stories from Christchurch of people diving under tables when jackhammers made pots and pans rattle on a shelf; they thought it was another earthquake.

And PTSD is not the only psychological reaction possible; it’s just the most severe. Everyone is guaranteed to experience some stress; feelings of helplessness and depression are common.

Student Volunteer Army

Another, more positive, reaction to disasters such as earthquakes is a need to help out, to attempt to restore things to normal. Among the students at UC, this need to help became the Student Volunteer Army (SVA). Initially formed on Facebook after the first earthquake, it became a student network co-ordinating, feeding and transporting 2 500 volunteers in low-risk zones to shift loose mud and dirt from the quake (65 000 tonnes worth). After the second earthquake, the SVA grew even larger — there is no count posted on their website, just “thousands of students.” It has since continued as a volunteer organization in Christchurch. Louis Brown himself, one of the main coordinators of the SVA, will visit UVic on Nov. 1 to speak about how to mobilize and engage student populations in the event of a disaster.

 Are We Ready? 

UVic is well prepared for the initial response to an earthquake. The greatest concerns are the EOC’s potentially inaccessible location, lack of preparedness for residences to be largely unusable and the lack of an emergency evacuation plan.

From the supplies perspective, while there is a water reserve in place, there are no permanent stockpiles of food. But Food Services has many locations on campus, and there will be food from these places available post-quake, though the amounts are uncertain. Currently, UVic has no stockpiles of rebuilding material, and no agreements to obtain materials with any company post-quake. Discussions are ongoing about this, spurred by the visit to Christchurch. Nor are there extensive plans for erecting temporary structures.

After the visit to UC, UVic’s emergency planning team has made progress. Donaldson and her team have reconsidered campus evacuation policies and begun a discussion about moving the EOC.

Every plan needs evaluation and modification, and UVic’s emergency planners have shown they are willing to work at making UVic’s emergency response to disasters effective and current, ensuring the safety of the campus community.