When legendary chef Julia Child exclaimed, “Any disaster is a learning process,” she was likely referring to disasters of the culinary kind.
But VCH staff on the Central Coast are proof that her wisdom can be applied to other situations, including earthquakes and potential tsunamis. The results of their work are enhanced emergency management plans, improving evacuation plans and a safe store of essential supplies for both area hospitals – R.W. Large Memorial Hospital in Bella Bella and Bella Coola General Hospital.
While this type of emergency preparation may seem matter-of-fact to those living in or around the Lower Mainland, it can be significantly more challenging in remote communities. This makes the well-coordinated efforts of VCH, Health Emergency Management British Columbia (HEMBC), the Central Coast Regional District (CCRD) and two local First Nations – the Heiltsuk First Nation and Nuxalk First Nation – that much more important.
On January 23, 2018, a magnitude-7.9 earthquake hit 278 km offshore of Kodiak, Alaska, triggering tsunami warnings for the entire Central Coast area. As soon as the 2 a.m. warning sounded, staff at both sites began preparing patients for evacuation, taking steps to get everyone to the safety of higher ground.
Inland, Bella Coola General Hospital patients were loaded onto a quickly commandeered BC transit bus and transported to the Acwsalcta School,five kilometres away, out of the tsunami zone.
In Bella Bella, close to 20 staff arrived at R.W. Large Memorial Hospital and prepared patients for evacuation, transporting them to an uphill location using personal vehicles or pushing them in a wheelchair when the local BC Emergency Health Services crew wasn’t available to assist with the evacuation.
Photo: R.W. Large Memorial Hospital, Bella Bella
When the tsunami warning was canceled more than two hours after it first sounded, patients and staff made their way back to the two sites, ready to review what worked and what could be improved for next time.
As HEMBC coordinator Nicole Spence summarized, “The event highlighted a lot of gaps and opportunities.”
In the weeks that followed, some ground-breaking teamwork came about as leaders from the Nuxalk and Heiltsuk First Nations came to the table and worked closely with staff from VCH, HEMBC and the CCRD on addressing the issues laid bare by the potential tsunami.
“It’s been very positive because we’ve set out some outcomes and goals we’re working towards together,” said Sharon Carroll, Bella Coola Hospital manager and interim Bella Bella Hospital manager. “We continue to have regular meetings with our hospital emergency management committees to review processes and flow of response in emergencies, and we’re more involved in community-based emergency planning to help ensure a coordinated response for future events.”
In Bella Coola, additional meetings were held with community stakeholders, the CCRD, VCH emergency management committees and the Nuxalk administration. These meetings helped solidify community and hospital-based responses to better aid in future responses.
“We look forward to continuing to develop these collaborative responses for both communities,” adds Carroll. “We are extremely grateful for the partnership and support of community members, and the guidance and support from the Heiltsuk and Nuxalk First Nations Chiefs and administrative council members.”
Photo: Bella Coola General Hospital
The groups have worked closely within a short amount of time to coordinate and deliver things that have our hospital sites better prepared in the event of another emergency including:
Improved notification systems – to make sure residents and staff in both communities receive timely notice of any emergency. The Heiltsuk First Nation, under Chief Marilyn Slett and Health Director Keith Marshall’s leadership, are working on bringing a tsunami warning system to Bella Bella.
Enhanced evacuation plans – both sites are working to improve their evacuation plans. Updated plans will include established evacuation locations and details on how to carry out an evacuation, what supplies to bring and a host of other important details.
Safe, secure supplies – one of the biggest challenges that surfaced was a lack of essential supplies to support patients and staff and a safe, secure place to store them. After some significant coordination with the First Nations in both communities, both sites now host a shipping container full of key supplies right beside their evacuation location. Supported by additional funding from HEMBC, the containers have supplies and equipment to support three days of care for staff, residents and patients.
“We had two big challenges – one was the logistics of getting a container full of supplies up to the Central Coast and the other was finding things we can put in a shipping container that are useful that won’t expire right away – because almost all medical supplies expire,” explained Maddy Laberge, HEMBC manager for Lower Mainland Acute and member of the project team.
“Knowing that, we focused on clinical items that don’t have expiry dates like bedpans and sharps containers and things that people will have challenges carrying up the hill, like cots, 50-year shelf-life water, 25-year shelf-life food and wool blankets.”
Indigenous knowledge and expertise were incorporated into planning the container supplies to ensure a culturally safe and welcoming environment for evacuees, including food items such as smoked salmon.
Photo: Maddy Laberge, HEMBC
Residents of both Bella Bella and Bella Coola can sleep a little easier knowing that their local health care facilities and communities are now much better prepared in case of an emergency. And work continues as they collaborate and refine local resources to help ensure a rapid and coordinated response for future events.