AS a crowd of onlookers jockey for better views, a man stands waving from a second-storey window trying to signal for help.
Members of West Vancouver Fire and Rescue crouch nearby watching a thin line of smoke billow from a small hole in the side of the building. Their gear on, they are ready to attack the fire. But first, they must wait for the smoke to get worse.
It is not a typical response from the firefighters, but then this isn't a typical fire.
This is part of Operation Slip and Slide, an emergency training exercise held this week on three separate days and facilitated by the North Shore Emergency Management Office.
The response team is waiting for the fire scenario to begin. Once this part of the exercise officially starts, they are quick to react, moving together up the exterior stairs in a methodical approach. The simulated victim is removed from the building and a large fan is used to dissipate the smoke.
It is the second day of the operation and District of West Vancouver is in the spotlight. District of North Vancouver personnel participated two days ago, and City of North Vancouver staff will take their turn the day after.
Information from NSEMO notes that the aim of Operation Slip and Slide is to examine the operational readiness of the three North Shore municipalities to respond to major emergencies and disasters.
The exercise scenario is based on extreme weather conditions: record-setting cold followed by a low-pressure system that results in 50-70 centimetres of snow topped by 40 millimetres of rain in the days leading up to the simulated disaster. As a result of the rain-on-snow weather, there have been numerous traffic accidents, power outages, roof collapses and burst pipes.
The outdoor part of the exercise takes place at the District of North Vancouver Fire Training Facility where simulated injured victims are carefully removed from a crash site involving an empty school bus, a van and a small tanker truck. Soon after the accident site is cleared, smoke begins to fill the air and the fire scenario is underway.
In the midst of the crafted chaos, assistant fire chief Tony Bird addresses the media on the sidelines with an update of the situation, as a "reporter" aggressively presses for more information. Handling media is a part of the exercise.
Despite the multiple emergencies, the responders appear calm.
"The most important thing about emergency training exercises is it's a safe training environment," explains Dorit Mason, director of NSEMO.
The exercises are a way to test the various levels of emergency response within and between the three municipalities and the emergency management office to determine what works well and what needs to be improved. During a major emergency or a disaster, key decision-makers for all three municipalities, first responders and various agencies will be stationed at the Emergency Operations Centre, located at the North Shore Emergency Management Office on East 14th Street in North Vancouver.
Mason describes the EOC as a sort of mission control that supports activities in the field.
On this day, during Operation Slip and Slide, the EOC is crowded with West Vancouver staff from the engineering and finance departments, among others, as well as some council members and members of other agencies, such as a psychosocial support team.
Grant McRadu, the district's chief administrative officer, is the EOC director. In this role, he is in charge of operations at the centre, relying heavily on information from the various staff in the office and responders in the field.
"He's the conduit to council so that they are kept in the loop," notes Mason.
During a real emergency, council members would not likely be in the EOC, but would continue to show leadership and show the municipality is responding, she adds. They are there that day to observe. A few other familiar faces dot the room, including Tim Jones of North Shore Search and Rescue.
NSEMO's role is not to lead the response in the event of an emergency. Its main role is to supply a turn-key emergency operations centre, as well as training and planning.
"We are in complete support; we are a municipal department. We're the emergency management department for all three municipalities, and we are in support of their operations. We'll help guide because this is our business," says Mason.
The chief administrative officers of each municipality are trained to step in to the role of EOC director. Within their own staff, there are also back-ups who could fill that role if necessary.
"Because we have a tri-municipal disaster bylaw, it also means that on those larger events, the three chief administrative officers filling those emergency operations centre director roles could work on behalf of each other," explains Mason.
If a disaster occurs, the expected response within the municipalities is to activate their emergency operations centre, show they are responding, support the crews in the field, and get all the key leaders together to make decisions and create effective response plans.
Mason notes that although some municipal staff members are expected to leave their municipality to move into the EOC during an emergency, they would not be abandoning their community.
"They are actually going to the place where they can coordinate and organize the best to support all of their activities that are happening in the municipality," says Mason.
On Wednesday, the EOC is abuzz with activity and conversation as operation Slip and Slide continues to move through its different stages. The office suddenly gets quiet as an announcement is made: A state of emergency has officially been declared.
The speaker quickly explains that doing this gives the EOC director more authority for making decisions, and prepares them for "down the road" as the scenario unfolds. Declaring a state of emergency is a move that is taken very seriously, and is not something they aim to do right away, he notes. It is only used when necessary. As soon as the announcement is over, the din of activity and conversation returns.
The room is divided into sections, with ceiling signs identifying Logistics, Planning, Finance and other departments. Tables are pulled together and topped with equipment, charts, maps, computers and supplies. Staff and volunteers gather in small groups around work stations, or move with purpose between the different areas. They are all wearing identification badges and safety vests. The vests are colour-coded: those in charge wear green, information officers are in red, logistics are in yellow, planning are in blue, and operations are in orange. It's a standard colour code, notes Mason.
"We can have this room set up within about half an hour to 45 minutes," she adds, scanning the scene.
If activated, the NSEMO team would immediately start to staff the office as the municipalities' players made their way there. If an incident happened during the day, people could be in the office within 15 minutes. If the incident occurred during the middle of the night, it might take an hour to an hour and a half for some of the staff to get to the office.
However, because the three municipalities train together there are multiple staff members who can respond. Each municipality has staff that can fill all of the necessary roles, says Mason.
"We've created that relationship between them and they could spell each other off in these events."
NSEMO was created in 1978. Since its inception, it has been activated three times.
The first time was in 2005 after a landslide in the Berkley-Riverside escarpment area destroyed two homes and killed one resident. The office was also activated in 2006 when fierce wind storms felled trees and caused power outages. In 2010, the office was activated during the Olympics because West Vancouver was a venue city.
Although emergency resources already in place can handle most emergencies most of the time, when an emergency involves multiple agencies or when it's big enough to overwhelm one agency, such as a large evacuation, the office would assume control.
During a real emergency, the NSEMO can use a phone-based system called Rapid Notify to inform residents of the situation in progress, and municipal websites would provide information and a link to the NSEMO's site. Updates would also be provided on Twitter. However, Mason warns that NSEMO's Twitter feed is not monitored around the clock. It is only a source of information and should not be used to try to communicate with NSEMO during an emergency, especially if someone needs help.
"They still need to call 9-1-1," she says of the proper course of action for residents who need help.
During an emergency or disaster, the operations centre makes response decisions based on a series of prioritized goals. The first four never change in order. They are: protect the safety and health of responders, save lives, reduce suffering and protect public health.
The next set of goals could change in order depending on the type and location of the incident: protect critical infrastructure (such as sewers and hydro); protect property; protect environment and reduce economic and social losses.
Smaller emergency exercises are held on a regular basis to test and rehearse department responses. Large emergency training exercises, such as Operation Slip and Slide, which involve multiple departments and agencies, occur about every two years to test all aspects of a response and how they work together.
"This is not a normal role for most of these staff," says Mason. "Fire, police, engineering, they respond to emergencies every day. (For) some of these staff here, though, this might be their only practice every couple of years."
The North Shore is unique in its ability to bring together the resources of its three municipalities in a co-ordinated response, she adds. Training exercises play a large role in maintaining that system.
"It's made us stronger so that we can actually support each other."