Hope is prepared for another disaster, rescue organizations say

Emergency management system tested in Sunday’s crash on Coquihalla

As the dust settles after a major motor vehicle accident on the Coquihalla highway near Hope Sunday, organizations involved agree the rescue was well-organized and shows Hope is prepared for another large-scale disaster.

A multi-vehicle crash on the Coquihalla highway Sunday evening sent 29 to hospital and 136 to a warming centre in the community, closing the highway in both directions for six hours. Hope Search and Rescue said Monday the chain-reaction crash involved four semi-trucks, four buses and 11 private vehicles, although RCMP have yet to release the number of vehicles involved.

Mario Levesque, Hope Search and Rescue manager, said his team is busy preparing scenarios for even more catastrophic disasters.

“You look at passenger trains. What happens if a train, for example, goes into the Fraser River?” he said. “Those are scenarios that we prepare for.”

Hope Search and Rescue sent 13 members to Sunday’s road rescue, a larger than average call but a successful one, Levesque said. This is the biggest call he has taken in his seven years with the organization.

Hope has a structure, as all communities are mandated to, for large-scale emergencies.

The crash Sunday was not big enough to open up an emergency operations centre, but this is ready to be set up, in council chambers, any time a disaster big enough happens in the community.

Tom DeSorcy, emergency program coordinator with the District of Hope, said emergency response organizations run “tabletop” scenarios to prepare for situations like this.

Police, school district, ambulance service, health authority, search and rescue, fire services and others come together to work through these scenarios. DeSorcy said companies who might be involved, like rail companies or owners of pipelines running through town, are invited to the exercizes.

DeSorcy said, each participant comes out knowing their role in an eventual disaster.

As cross-community responses are becoming more common, he said clear leadership, command structures and communication between agencies responding are crucial.

Sunday’s crash was no exception with fire services from Agassiz and Popkum, rescuers from Chilliwack and paramedics from all over the Lower Mainland responding.

“The latest (tabletop) that we planned…it was led by Fraser Health, by Catherine Wiebe at Fraser Canyon Hospital. They wanted to do a table top exercize, based on a “code orange,” he said.

Code orange, as director of Fraser Canyon Hospital Catherine Wiebe explains it, is an event that “significantly exceeds the normal operational capacity.” This is the code called Sunday night as the hospital was preparing for incoming casualties from the crash.

Wiebe said she was very proud of hospital staff response to the crash. The mobilization went fast, from the time she received the call at 9:30 p.m. until all patients were discharged or transfered at 2:30 a.m.

BC Ambulance coordinated with Wiebe, assessing patients at the crash site and bringing them to hospital. At the same time Fraser Health set up a virtual emergency operations centre, calls discussing patients needs and capacity at various hospitals across the health region.

A team of five physicians and seven registered nurses saw 17 injured at the Fraser Canyon Hospital. Support staff — cleaners, medical imaging and a registration clerk — came to assist. Another physician and social workers triaged survivors of the crash at the local high school.

“I, as a director for the site, was just so amazed and appreciative of the team and how well they came together to respond to the accident that happened, which could have overwhelmed our site, but in reality the team did fabulously,” she said. “If you hear there’s potentially 150 patients and you’ve only got eight bays around you it can feel a bit daunting but they did really, really well.”

One thing she learned that night was the importance of having leadership on site, doing logistics and coordinating with Fraser Health, so the hospital staff can be freed up to do their clinical work.

Principal Rosalee Floyd said she sprung into action after a call from a friend whose partner is an emergency responder, opening the school for incoming passengers from the crash site.

“Everything just went really, really smoothly. They just needed a place in which to house folks and I happened to be available,” Floyd said of the mobilization, adding schools are perfectly designed for the amount of people who came through and the needs they had.

She said those who came through were tired and unnerved by the experience but grateful for the help they got throughout the night.

Superintendent of schools Karen Nelson said this was the first time the school was used in this capacity. The 136 people were assessed at the school between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., by 1:30 a.m. all travelers had left the building.

“It was nothing that we’ve received specific training in, it was just everybody worked together to help out at this time,” Nelson said, adding the district would be more than willing to provide this in future disasters.

The organizations interviewed will not speak to specific lessons learned from the crash, they all said they will be debriefing and putting any lessons learned into their planning.

For residents interested in playing a role in disasters like Sunday’s crash, recruitment is ongoing for Hope Fire Department volunteer firefighters and Emergency Support Services volunteers for a region that includes Hope, the Sunshine Valley, the Fraser Canyon and Laidlaw.

Related stories:

Scenes of chaos and fear at multi-vehicle crash on Coquihalla highway

Coquihalla fully reopen after crashes send 29 to hospital

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Hope Search and Rescue are reporting four semi-trucks, four buses and 11 private vehicles were involved on a Sunday night crash on the Coquihalla highway. The crash sent 29 patients to hospital, no fatalities were reported. Hope Search and Rescue photo

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