February 24, 2006

Safety Engineering

West coast industry needs to be earthquake prepared

B.C. experiences more quakes than California


As the incidence of British Columbia earthquakes rises, construction industry officials are getting serious about training and safety measures related to the potentially dangerous acts of Mother Nature.

“Doom, despair and destruction is the business we’re in,” QuakeKoso Inc.’s Jerry O’Sullivan said with a grin at a recent BC Construction Show seminar.

The president of the emergency preparedness company was among a diverse group of experts advising how to properly prepare for the potentially devastating effects of earthquakes on structures and for the inevitable, yet unpredictable, seismic events that plague the West Coast.

O’Sullivan wasn’t joking when he pointed to statistics highlighting the number of earthquakes that have struck B.C. in the past decade. California, which is widely regarded as the most earthquake-prone area of North America, only experienced six major earthquakes, whereas B.C. went through eight quakes.

While O’Sullivan and the rest of his panel agreed there is little anyone can do to predict an upcoming disaster, building owners and operators can prepare for the aftermath of a quake or other natural disaster.

Jay Lewis, president of Terra Firm Earthquake Preparedness, said the business of seismic risk mitigation boils down to fastening non-structural components to the building. In an earthquake, most of the damage occurs not in the structure itself but the contents of the building, which are often not secured.

“Eighty to 90 per cent of the value of a building is what’s in the building, not the building itself,” Lewis said. He said despite the obvious dangers and the fact that most equipment is already equipped to be bolted down, generally objects are not restrained.

For example, Lewis said equipment on a building’s roof, such as HVAC apparatus or chillers, are often “just sitting there.”

Other furniture prevalent in the construction industry, such as map cabinets, is especially vulnerable, he added. “Anything stacked and not secured will fall.”

O’Sullivan pointed out the worst part of any quake aftermath is gas fires, adding Vancouver is more at risk than most North American cities.

With over 8000 km of natural gas pipes located beneath the Greater Vancouver Regional District, only New York has a larger natural gas network underneath its streets, offices and homes.

“Fires will equal half of all losses. People are prepared for quakes, but they certainly aren’t prepared for a fire,” O’Sullivan said. He said many of the fires in the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which claimed many lives and cost billions in damage, originated from natural gas lines.

One reason communities aren’t prepared today is that electricity, not natural gas, was the fuel of choice when seismic preparedness began in earnest decades ago.

O’Sullivan said gas shut-off valves are a low-cost solution, adding his company has installed many valves in schools and hospitals in the greater Vancouver area, but less progress has been made with residential structures.

Chris Wolfe, president of VibraSonic Controls, Inc, said the Lower Mainland will probably not get hit with a huge earthquake, but the potential legal fallout will be intense, regardless.

“We may not get ‘the big one’, but it’ll probably be a ‘sue-itis’ earthquake, where everyone goes around suing each other,” he said.

In the last 10 years, Wolfe has seen a decline in seismic preparedness.

This is likely because of the rise in residential construction and a concurrent lack of sophistication in the part of contractors.

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