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Earthquake! Emergency manager puts training into action

Image of a tsunami disaster warning sign in California
In California, where this sign warns people on the coast that they're in a tsunami hazard zone, the public is very much aware that earthquakes will happen. BC Hydro emergency planner Ben Peco learned firsthand earlier this summer what it's like to be in an earthquake while on vacation in California wine country.

Ben Peco's job is to help BC Hydro prepare, so he was ready for wine country quake

Ben Peco was asleep with his wife and toddler son in California wine country this past summer when he awoke to find his body rolling like it was on a waterbed. He was in the middle of a 6.0 earthquake.

"I was in a second-floor bedroom of a two-storey house, on holidays when the earthquake hit at 3:20 a.m.," recalls Peco, who also serves as the manager for BC Hydro's strategic emergency management team.

Then the 10 seconds or so of motion stopped, and Peco looked around him to make sure there was no damage. After about a minute of feeling like things were moving in slow motion, his emergency training kicked in and he reached for his iPad.

"We still had communications, so that was a good sign," he recalls. "I pulled up the Geological Services website and had a look at their live feed, which told me that the earthquake was centred 60 kilometres north of us. Then I looked at the city's emergency management website for a report, as well as Pacific Gas & Electric's (PG&E) site, which told me there were a few outages further away in Napa, but that we didn't have any.

"I didn't smell any gas or hear any water leaking, so I thought that we should likely be okay. I still wanted to be prepared for aftershocks."

That quick thinking and training comes from a career working in emergency preparedness and management. At BC Hydro he leads the team that works to help ensure BC Hydro is prepared in the event of a major emergency, and he'll be busy when the utility takes part in a province-wide drill on October 16 — the Great British Columbia ShakeOut.

It pays to be prepared

The earthquake that hit the Napa Valley area of California on August 24, 2014 created substantial damage including impacts to power, gas, water, roadways, buildings and other critical infrastructure. Over 70,000 customers initially had no power or had broken gas lines. That's why it's so important for utilities and critical infrastructure owners to spend a lot of time preparing for natural disasters and other emergencies, says Ben.

BC Hydro's system includes 31 generating stations sending electricity along 75,000 kilometres of power lines that go across mountains, cross river valleys, wilderness and high density urban areas.

BC Hydro prides itself on its comprehensive maintenance and safety program that includes regular inspections and upgrades. The strategic emergency management program includes other preparedness such as:

  • Hazard assessment and planning models
  • Corporate-wide training and emergency procedures
  • Simulations and training exercises to ensure that BC Hydro is ready to respond if an emergency occurs.

As an organization, the aim, Peco says, is first and foremost, to ensure the safety of the public and our employees, and that we can effectively resume and restore critical operations and services during and after an emergency.

Seismic activity not the only risk to business operations and facilities

British Columbia's location in a high earthquake-risk zone means that seismic activity is top of mind, but emergency planning and management at BC Hydro also includes responding to flooding, wildfires, extreme storm events like wind, snow and rainfall, landslides, and other emergencies.

If and when a local, regional or province-wide emergency occurs, response plans are activated and teams move quickly to evaluate the safety of key facilities and the status of critical operations. BC Hydro put that extensive planning into action this summer when wildfires moved into the vicinity of the G.M. Shrum Generating Station, and eventually evacuated the W.A.C Bennett Dam as a safety precaution for local staff and contractors.

Peco witnessed the importance of good planning and training first-hand this summer when the earthquake hit during his vacation.

"PG&E put out regular communications that included safety information," says Peco. "And social media also updated people on the extent of the damage within hours."

Napa's response included bringing in additional civil engineers to assess the damage, which is also a part of BC Hydro's overall emergency plan. Peco was especially impressed to see that within a day, buildings in downtown Napa were assessed and 'tagged' for re-entry, needed a degree of caution or were not safe at all.

Similar seismic evaluations of buildings and key facilities are a critical part of BC Hydro's emergency response. Across the province, we're upgrading facilities such as the Ruskin Dam and the John Hart Generating Station to better withstand earthquakes, and continually revising and improving response plans.

Are you ready for an emergency? Think about your emergency plans, and practice

According to Peco, his experience in California made him think more about his reactions to emergency situations, especially when he's not responding to them in his BC Hydro role. In particular, he had many discussions with his wife about what they would do if a similar event happened in Vancouver.

"With me working in emergency preparedness, I would have a role to play in this type of situation, but I am also a father and a husband and would want to make sure that my family was okay. Luckily for us, on this holiday everything turned out just fine," Peco says.

And he encourages everyone to take steps to ensure that they're prepared if they find themselves in a similar situation, starting with the Great British Columbia ShakeOut.

Make an emergency plan with your family, prepare or check your emergency kit, and on October 16, drop, cover and hold on.

Learn more about the Great British Columbia ShakeOut