Drivers motor up the ramp to board BC Ferries’ Spirit of British Columbia at Victoria’s Swartz Bay terminal. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)

Be Prepared: BC Ferries to play crucial role in emergencies but also faces risks

Black Press Media takes a look at emergency preparedness in Greater Victoria in this special report

This is part seven of a special eight-part report done by Black Press Media on emergency preparedness in Greater Victoria. Find the series online at vicnews.com/tag/greater-victoria-emergency-preparedness.

To understand the dependency of Vancouver Island on the ferry system, consider the following statistics.

In 2018, BC Ferries shipped 22.3 million passengers, 8.9 million vehicles (a new record) and goods worth up to $8 billion, according to the 2018-19 annual report. By contrast, Victoria International Airport, Vancouver Island’s largest airport, moved 1.38 million passengers.

In the event a state of emergency is declared due to an earthquake or another natural disaster, BC Ferries takes direction from the province’s emergency personnel, said Astrid Braunschmidt, manager of corporate communications and business support for BC Ferries. “It’s important to have a coordinated response in disaster situations and we are prepared to work together with all emergency organizations.”

RELATED: Vancouver Island overdue for the big one, can also expect mega-thrust tsunami

Now imagine the worst-case seismic scenario as discussed by the provincial government in its 2015 B.C. Earthquake Immediate Response Plan – a major shallow earthquake near the urban centres of either Greater Victoria or Greater Vancouver.

What would happen to the provincial ferry system in such a situation?

According to the B.C. Earthquake Immediate Response Plan, a spontaneous mass evacuation will not take place in the event catastrophic shallow earthquake near Greater Victoria.

As the Canadian Armed Forces wrote in its 2014 contingency plan for a catastrophic earthquake in British Columbia (Operation Panorama), key facilities including ferry facilities might be directly damaged by shaking, as well as by earthquake-induced liquefaction, ground settlement or slope failure. Low-lying areas could be at risk of tsunami damage and docks or other costal infrastructure may be left unusable.

The Canadian Armed Forces was not permitted to provide comment for this series, as a branch of the federal government during an election campaign.

READ MORE: Be prepared emergency series

Such possible outcomes have subsequently sparked warnings about Vancouver Island being cut off from food and water supplies, as well as technical resources needed for recovery and rebuilding.

It is important to note these predictions rely on certain assumptions, which remain unproven until an actual emergency. It’s also important to note BC Ferries has an extensive plan worth $3.9 billion for significant upgrades to terminals and fleet maintenance facilities over the next 12 years.

The provincial government has assigned BC Ferries a wide range of responsibilities in the B.C. Earthquake Immediate Response Plan. Among coordination and assessment responsibilities, the plan calls for BC Ferries to provide priority loading for emergency personnel, equipment and supplies. It also calls on BC Ferries to ensure ferries are available to serve as reception centres, hospitals, response centres or other emergency facilities.

Speaking in general terms, Braunschmidt said BC Ferries maintains a 24-hour operations and security centre.

“Our teams are highly trained to monitor everything from everyday operations to emergency alerts, including earthquake and tsunami alerts … We are in constant communication with all our vessels and terminals, and have emergency plans in place, should a natural disaster occur.”

Pick up your Be Ready guide at Black Press newspaper offices or find it online at vicnews.com/e-editions.


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