AIBC: Responding to Disasters

by Robyn Fenton and Marguerite Laquinte Francis

Image: Clockwise L to R: A damaged building requiring assessment during "Operation Windshield" simulation exercise coordinated by North Shore Emergency Management; damage assessors working in the "emergency operations centre" disaster with participation from members of the AIBC’s Post-Disaster Response Committee. Photos: Mike Wakefield(Images: Clockwise L to R: A damaged building requiring assessment during “Operation Windshield” simulation exercise coordinated by North Shore Emergency Management; damage assessors working in the “emergency operations centre”. Photos: Mike Wakefield)

Flash floods, earthquakes and wildfires have caused significant property damage and displaced many communities in Alberta and British Columbia in recent years. Did you know that in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, individuals with design, construction and facility management expertise can be of great assistance to local authorities? In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy swept the East Coast, 80,000 affected buildings were assessed for safety and damage by first responders, municipal staff and trained volunteers within the first 30 days. In 2013, over 17,000 homes and businesses were damaged by the Southern Alberta floods. In August 2015, after the Metro Vancouver windstorms, the need for damage assessors once again far exceeded expectations.

On November 16, 2015, members of the AIBC’s Post-Disaster Response Committee participated in “Operation Windshield”, a full scale earthquake exercise coordinated by North Shore Emergency Management. The onsite training was a simulation of the response and coordination efforts that would be triggered by a credible 7.3 shallow earthquake in the central Georgia Strait. It included the full activation of the North Shore Emergency Operations Centre and the deployment of responders from the Districts of West Vancouver, North Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, neighbouring municipalities, air and marine response and many other stakeholder agencies. For the design professionals who participated, it validated the importance of our contribution as advisors to municipalities and as members of rapid damage assessment teams.

In Canada, the responsibility for disaster response first lies at the municipal level. Should the event overwhelm their resources they would request help from the provincial government such as the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and Emergency Management BC. A fundamental and common function of disaster response is to evaluate the state of the built environment. This activity is broadly referred to as Damage Assessment (DA), and more specifically: rapid safety assessments and detailed damage assessments. These reviews which allow people to return to their homes and get businesses back up and running as soon as possible are central to reducing the demand for the limited emergency resources and allowing everyday activities to resume so that a community can recover more quickly. Although some international precedents exist, such as those of the Applied Technology Council, there is no single Canadian standard. In BC, each jurisdiction establishes its own guidelines for DA leading to a patchwork of response protocols across the province.

Disaster response is commonly broken into three stages; within each, we find that design and construction professionals have a key role to play.

Emergency First Response (typically occurring within the first 7 days): Work during this stage includes the provision of emergency shelter, medical services, food, social and psychological support. Authorities and their staff will perform preliminary ‘windshield’ safety assessment to quickly get an understanding of the scale and scope of the damage. Specialty consultants including engineers and architects would likely be called upon to provide assessments of critical buildings and infrastructure.

Relief (within the first 70 days): The relief stage can begin immediately in certain parts of the affected area however it generally refers to the period of time following the initial impact of the event, when clean up begins. Rapid safety assessments of housing stock and smaller structures are performed in under an hour to triage buildings that are largely unaffected and suitable for occupancy from those which pose a risk to health, life-safety or are structurally unstable.

Individuals with varying levels of training and expertise in facility management, design and the construction industry are a valuable pool of resources to complement an assessment team given that the number of buildings to assess in any given community is far greater than the number of municipal staff available.

The relief stage also includes more detailed assessments of damage to infrastructure, more complex building types and historic properties. Generally this in depth analysis is led by structural engineers, geoscientists and senior architects who might also be supported by others in the industry.

Recovery (within the first 700 days and beyond): The recovery stage is that of rebuilding. It involves the planning and conceptualizing of a long term vision which will enhance the physical fabric and resilience of a community. Architects, engineers and other construction professionals have a more obvious role to play throughout this stage with the hope that by the end of this approximately two- year period, residents will have positively adjusted to the new reality of their post-disaster community.

For the last two years, the AIBC’s Post-Disaster Response Committee has been working with agencies from all three levels of government, post-secondary institutions and other professional associations to develop an interconnected system for damage assessment and volunteer deployment. Within this programme, our committee sees a formal role for the AIBC to train and certify our members on both rapid safety assessments and detailed damage assessments. The objective is to create a province-wide roster of trained DA volunteers who could be called upon to assist with smaller, localized disasters or those of greater impact. Our hope is that the agreements and strategies that are developed will be adopted as standard guidelines for communities across the province and that the communication structures created will aid in establishing a national network of trained volunteers able to support and provide assistance between provinces, territories and internationally.

The AIBC committee meets monthly. To participate in their work or to add your name to the list of volunteers for RDA, contact the committee through the AIBC’s main office

Robyn Fenton Architect AIBC is the founder of ReForma Architecture, a small scale firm working on residential and commercial projects on Bowen Island, BC. She is a volunteer on the AIBC Post-Disaster Response Committee as well as a board member and facilitator with the Vancouver Design Nerds Society.
Marguerite Laquinte Francis Architect AIBC is the Principal of MLF Event Architecture which specializes in temporary construction and site planning for major sporting events including the 2010 Winter Olympics, Marathons and the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Marguerite also studies emergency management at the Justice Institute of BC and chairs the AIBC’s Post-Disaster Response Committee.

Role Call: Municipal Advisory Design Panels

The AIBC invites applications from architects interested in serving on the following design panels:

  • District of Pitt Meadows
  • District of Oak Bay
  • City of Richmond
  • District of Squamish
  • Township of Esquimalt

The role of an advisory design panel member is to give impartial, professional advice directly on any proposal or policy affecting the community’s physical environment in the public interest.

To learn more about the procedures for serving on a panel, please refer to the following documents:

Please fill out an interactive application form and forward your submissions to the attention of Professional Services Coordinator Alexandra Kokol by email (

New UBC SALA Representative to AIBC Council

New UBC SALA Representative to Council John BassThe AIBC welcomes John Bass, chair of the UBC architecture program, as the newly designated SALA representative on AIBC Council. He began his new role in January 2016, replacing Chris Macdonald who has served on council since 2012 as well as in years prior.

Chris has been a reliable presence on council and at the institute, serving almost 10 years in all. During his time at the AIBC, Chris has sat on multiple boards and committees, including the Registration Board, Annual Conference and Public Outreach committees to name but a few. We greatly appreciate his contributions and commitment to the institute and wish him continued success in his future.

Under the Architects Act, either the director of The University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture or a full-time member of the faculty nominated by the director, is designated as the representative on AIBC Council.

For more information on the 2015/2016 AIBC Council, visit our website.