Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Response to Alberta flood emphasizes importance of structural collapse training

In June 2013, I responded to one of the largest natural disasters to ever strike the province of Alberta, Canada. The severe weather and disastrous flood that struck on June 20 claimed four lives and left an estimated $500 million or more in damages. More than 100,000 people in southern Alberta were evacuated, including everyone in downtown Calgary.

I was deployed for more than two weeks - with Canadian Task Force 2 and then as part of the Strathcona County Emergency Services Technical Rescue Team from Sherwood Park, Alberta.

This response reinforced for me the importance of emergency response training, especially the training in structural collapse and rescue techniques I received at Disaster City® through the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service.

Initially, Canadian Task Force 2 was assigned to assist with search and evacuation. The first 40-hour push was very busy and very aggressive on evacuation. We were doing a lot of structural assessment triage and damage assessments, going from house to house in neighborhoods. I definitely used the hard skills I learned in Advanced Structural Collapse courses at TEEX. I knew what to look for in assessing buildings and structural damage. Before the deployment ended, we had facilitated 6,500 structural assessments.

After the 40-hour push, we were asked to protect critical infrastructure, including keeping water out of a large communications hub. Other people were assigned to protect the energy and electrical hubs for the city. No matter what your ‘title,’ you have to be flexible in a deployment – you often have to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades.’

We were very fortunate. Working with the Calgary Fire Department and using pumps, we were able to keep the infrastructure working except the electric power in the immediate impact area.

Down the river from Calgary, the town of High River, population 13,000, was very hard hit by the flooding. After Canadian Task Force 2 was demobilized, I deployed with the Strathcona County Technical Rescue Team to assist in High River. One of the severely damaged areas was where two rivers converged in the community.

Working with a structural engineer, we set up a mapping system and planned how to assess each structure. There were many challenges, including a mobile home park where most of the homes had been displaced. Just going through this neighborhood when every home had been moved was a challenge to figure out which home went where and its original address. In other areas of the community, street signs and homes had been moved or washed away, so we had to conduct size-up, categorize the homes by a marking system and reestablish the original location.  We mapped out and evaluated 80 structures, checking walls, looking for cracks or shifting, checking window and door openings, and looking for movement of electrical and gas hookups.

Although we train to respond to natural disasters, the devastation we encountered during this incident was difficult to process. Your training just kicks in. The real-world training I received at TEEX helped prepare me for this response. One of the biggest plusses is the realism of the props at Disaster City. Everything there has been engineered to look like it’s been damaged or stressed, so you shift into that mindset. The instructors quiz you about what you are seeing, and what to look for in damaged structures, so you can apply this concept to a real world disaster.  
The training evolutions possible at Disaster City and the efficiency of the instruction provide a real-world tempo – the instructors keep you going, going, going. The props are set up to facilitate time on task and training, without downtime for resetting a prop, whether it is concrete breaching or shoring. The logistical support means downtime is minimized; tools are switched out promptly. This efficiency and real-world tempo go together for an excellent training experience. And the structure of the training means teams from different nations could integrate together in multinational teams very well.

Also, the background and knowledge of the full-time and adjunct instructors are phenomenal. They are people who have had real world experience with large-scale incidents. Some of the participants in the Advanced Structural Collapse 4 class last April were members of Texas Task Force 1 and had to leave during the class to deploy to a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.

When I returned for the Advanced Structural Collapse 5 class, they did a presentation to the group about the recent deployment and lessons learned. They give you takeaways from their experience that you can apply. It’s this type of real-world experience and hands-on training you can’t get anywhere else. I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to this specialized training, and it’s having a ripple effect here in Alberta.

I first came to Disaster City in January 2010 and spent my best birthday ever -– breaking concrete. Even though I’ve been back several times since then, you can’t appreciate the scope and the scale and the structural details until you are inside Disaster City.  Every time I go back, it’s another ‘Wow’ moment. The whole experience has been phenomenal.

~ Lt. Russ Bubenko serves on the operations staff of the Strathcona County Emergency Services, Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. He is also a member of Canadian Task Force 2, and is currently one of three Canadians to earn the US&R Rescue Specialist Certificate from TEEX.