Calgary Herald Exposes Gondola Safety Controversy With Parks Canada

Did Sunshine Village knowingly operate its gondola and other facilities with insufficient trained safety staff on January 19, 2011?

Sunshine Village Ski Patrol – Gondola Evacuation Training – Fall 2010

The Calgary Herald has exposed a series of letters between Parks Canada and Sunshine Village that express safety concerns regarding the operation of the gondola in January.   – Letters reveal testy relations with Sunshine ski resort (June 18, 2011 – Calgary Herald )

According to the Calgary Herald, then Banff Park Superintendent Kevin Van Tighem, wrote a letter to Sunshine Village stating that Sunshine was in breach of its lease for operating when it lacked the trained staff capacity to evacuate the gondola on January 19, 2011.

“Based on my discussion with you and consultation with my staff, I am of the view that on that day there were insufficient qualified staff available to evacuate the gondola in a safe and timely manner in the event of an emergency,” Van Tighem wrote in a letter obtained through access to information legislation.

As a decision such as this involves the safety of visitors to Banff National Park, Parks Canada Agency takes it very seriously.”

Then, the article states that Ken Derpak, (Sunshine Village VP Operations and GM) responded to Parks Canada with a three-page letter and as a result of what was said in that letter, Parks Canada decided that Sunshine Village had been in compliance all along.

According to Derpak, Sunshine was also in compliance with all gondola safety and evacuation protocols; further, a Banff-based rescue service company was contracted to provide gondola rescue services on a standby basis.

“We have always exercised necessary safety precautions in connection with the operation of the ski lifts and have always had the necessary qualified staff to provide evacuation services for injured persons,” Derpak wrote.

Clearly, whatever Derpak stated in his letter was a key factor in Parks Canada’s sudden reversal regarding the company’s ability to meet minimum public safety requirements on January 19, 2011.  Parks Canada would have reasonably relied upon Derpak’s comments to be truthful, complete, transparent and placing the safety of public and employees first.

However,  Derpak has knowingly breached safety codes in the past and has repeatedly allowed dangerous conditions to exist under his management control.  On January 19, 2011 and in the months following, Sunshine Village was in full public relations damage control mode after a large number of ski patrollers failed to turn up for work to highlight safety concerns and in particular Ken Derpak’s failure to address those safety concerns in the preceding weeks.  Given Derpak’s track record on safety and his vested interest in a high profile public safety issue, whatever Derpak said to Parks Canada Superintendent  Van Tighem in his letter is worth a much closer look.

Sunshine Village Watch has initiated a Freedom of Information  request with Parks Canada to obtain a copy of all the letters between Parks Canada and Sunshine Village on this issue.  These documents will provide direct insight regarding the effectiveness of Parks Canada in regulating the public safety responsibilities of private lease operators in Banff National Park.  In the meantime here are some facts:

  • Any assessment of Sunshine’s safety capacity has to be based on the ability cover all of its safety and response functions at the same time.  That means managing and responding to all open terrain and facilities, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, the Daylodge, the Bourgeau base area, kitchens, workshops, staff accommodation buildings and all lifts (including the highly specialized procedure for evacuating the 5km long gondola with potentially hundreds of trapped occupants).   Effective public safety is not based on bare minimums but the ability to respond adequately and effectively to reasonably foreseeable incidents.  On any given day of normal operation at Sunshine Village this task can produce multiple, concurrent emergency response incidents that can rapidly deplete and tax resources.  Even with the reduced terrain on January 19, 2011 – the potential risk exposure was still considerable.
  • On January 19, 2011, six (6) ski patrollers were at work when Sunshine Village opened the gondola and three chairlifts to the public.
  • Those 6 patrollers were responsible for providing emergency response to hundreds of public and staff including providing first aid treatment, rescue, transportation, lift evacuation and general safety services throughout all the open areas of the resort including the 5km long ski-out as well as managing the open terrain and fulfilling snow-safety (avalanche) assessment functions in areas such as Paris Basin, Headwall and the Wild West which potentially threatens the ski-out.
  • In addition to the 6 patrollers, there was one other employee (a ski instructor) who has had some limited training on the gondola evacuation system.  It is unknown if he was present that day but at best Sunshine had 7 potential rescuers if the gondola had an incident.
  • Under normal ski patrol operating protocols, just one skier injury report immediately requires 2 patrollers to respond.  One patroller locates and assesses the patient and one stands-by to bring required equipment.  If the injury is serious enough or involves a collision, it will require up to 4 or 5 trained responders.  If this was to coincide with a gondola incident 6 patrollers would not be anywhere near enough.
  • In the past Sunshine Village has had  gondola incidents that involved cabins detaching from the cable and falling to the ground.  In one of those incidents on the old gondola the cabin was loaded with people, it fell into Healy Creek and caused significant injuries to the occupants.  The ski patrol had to respond to the injured occupants and evacuate the gondola.
  • On the old gondola, the lift was divided into two separate sections, each able to operate independently of the other.  This meant that only one section would be involved in an incident and that only half the gondola would require an evacuation.  When the new gondola was built, Sunshine saved cost by making it all one lift.  However, this cost-saving exposes all gondola occupants to being trapped by any incident anywhere along the 5km length of the gondola (including both the up and the down sides)  That means that in a gondola incident now, the whole lift (all 5km) needs to be evacuated.  This requires a much higher number of trained rescuers.
  • To evacuate the gondola the rescuers need to use specialized equipment to actually ride along the cable from cabin to cabin.  Each cabin must be checked on both sides (up and down).  Occupied cabins require the rescuer to prepare a lowering device and extract the occupants one at a time and lower them to the ground, in some cases this requires lowering multiple persons a distance of hundreds of feet.  In some cases the spans of cable are very steep. This is time consuming, very exposed and very tiring and requires repetitive training to do it safely.
  • Due to the height and length of the gondola, rescuers are exposed to potentially extreme variances in temperature and wind.  Each rescuer is alone on the cable for hours and must be self-sufficient and independently able to resolve any problems including equipment malfunctions, fatigue, cold, errors and the condition of cabin occupants (physical and psychological).
  • Rescuers are repeatedly trained and drilled on the procedures for normal spans, steep spans, high spans and removal of incapacitated persons from a cabin (e.g. a patient being transported on a backboard or an occupant who is too frightened to cooperate). All rescuers are also trained on procedures for safely aiding and lowering another rescuer in the event of an injury. This training process is progressive and requires multiple sessions.  Persons who do not meet these strict training requirements are not deemed competent or capable of being on the cable during a gondola evacuation.
  • A gondola evacuation incident at Sunshine Village is a major emergency management operation that requires massive coordinated logistics and resource allocation.  Getting people to the ground is just one part as many of the locations under the gondola line are difficult to access.  In the event of an evacuation on January 19, 2011 – one of the senior patrol staff would have had to manage the operation as there was no Mountain Manager hired at the time.  Ken Derpak, who was acting Mountain Manager at the time, has had no training in managing a gondola evacuation and would certainly have not had the confidence of the rescue team.  This would have been one less trained rescuer available to go out and do the job.
  • According to the Herald, Derpak told Parks Canada that Sunshine Village had a contract with a Banff-based rescue service company to provide gondola rescue services on a standby basis.  The company in question is owned by Rodney Gair.  At the time, Gair and his employees had never been trained even once on the current gondola evacuation system at Sunshine Village.  They had not even put on the harnesses.  Few, if any of them would have been familiar with the procedures.
  • In the weeks following January 19, 2011 Sunshine Village began training Gair’s team however this task was assigned to a new internal committee headed up by Donald Beaulieu – Director of Sales and Marketing for Sunshine Village.  Mr. Beaulieu has no current competence or knowledge in the gondola evacuation procedures at Sunshine Village.  Beaulieu’s responsibilities are sales and marketing.  Ski Patrol involvement in this training was kept to a minimum and, as a result, vital information and skills were not transferred to Gair’s crew.
  •  It is debatable whether Gair’s team can even now meet the competency and training standards normally expected of the ski patrollers.  Until they do, they cannot be considered as a back-up resource.  Certainly, on January 19, 2011 – they did not meet any standards.  Even if they had shown up, it would have taken time to get them to the patrol headquarters at the Village and there would have been no one who had the time to train them on even the most rudimentary aspects of the current equipment.
  • Derpak told Parks Canada that Sunshine was in compliance with all gondola safety and evacuation protocols.  A primary scheduling consideration for the ski patrol is having sufficient patrollers on the hill to evacuate the gondola.  Due to the combined length of the entire 5 km new gondola, the preferred number is 20+.  The minimum number is considered to be 15 to 16 which is expected to be problematic in the evnt of a full incident.  On January 19, 2011 there were SIX (6) with possibly one other partially trained ski instructor.
  • Sunshine Village is not just governed by Parks Canada on this matter.  Sunshine must also meet the AN/CSA-Z91-02 (R2008) – Health and Safety Code for Suspended Equipment Operations which is administered in Alberta by the Alberta Elevating Devices & Amusement Rides Safety Association (AEDARSA).  AEDARSA also investigated Sunshine`s operations on January 19, 2011 and took no action after meeting with Derpak.
  • Parks Canada and AEDARSA both seem to have concluded that only six patrollers were enough to meet all public and workplace safety functions at Sunshine Village on January 19, 2011 as well as evacuate the 5km gondola.  However none of them have undertaken an in-depth assessment of what those functions actually require in terms of trained and competent personnel. The standards and requirements are well documented and evidenced by decades of past practice.  On January 19, 2011 those standards and requirements were not followed.

“As a decision such as this involves the safety of visitors to Banff National Park, Parks Canada Agency takes it very seriously.” ~ Kevin Van Tighem, former superintendent of the Banff field unit for Parks Canada. 

The question that has to be asked is whether the government agencies that are charged with setting and enforcing public safety standards can actually be counted on and trusted by the public to properly do their job.

A Workplace Safety Culture Is Not Built With Shell Games !!

In the wake of the Karl Stunt fatality, Sunshine Village talked up its new commitment to worker safety.  However, a true commitment to workplace safety requires a fundamental good-faith management commitment to implement a real safety culture.  Workplace safety is not about Public Relations platitudes, its about consistent actions of corporate integrity and core values that always put the safety interests of workers FIRST!  It has to come from the top.  Talk is cheap and plentiful but don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do!

A shell game, also called Cups And Balls Trick,  is one of the oldest and most popular of the tricks traditionally performed by a conjurer. …The manipulative work is aided by the distracting conversation, or patter, of the conjurer. (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

The idea is, no matter what anyone says or does to distract you, always try to keep your eye on where the ball is at all times!  It’s not always easy….

On January 30th, 2009 Sunshine Village was found guilty of failing to ensure the health and safety of its workers.

At the time, Doug Firby (Sunshine Village Associate Director, Communications, Media and Marketing) made a statement to the media: “This was a very, very sad situation,” Firby said of the incident, the first of its kind in the 80-year history of Sunshine Village. An independent safety audit recently determined that Sunshine’s current worker safety “is at a very high level,” he said, adding: “That’s still not good enough for us.”

Doug Firby

Firby said the company has hired another safety consultant to make sure that “everything is as good as it can possibly be. This has had a profound effect on the ownership and the staff at Sunshine. We want to make sure it never happens again.”

Well, that sounds inspiring and positive!  Lesson learned maybe?   But meanwhile, back on the ski hill…

The “safety consultant” referred to in Firby’s story was Dennis Allen , a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) who was contracted by Sunshine Village to help Sunshine Village pass a COR audit.

“In accepting the Code of Ethics, each CRSP pledges to subscribe not only to the letter but also to the spirit of the Code in all of their professional activities.”(emphasis added) ~ BCRSP Code of Ethics

Around the same time that  PR pointman Doug Firby was smoothly delivering his carefully scripted, post-judgement, damage-control “never again” message to the media, Ken Derpak (VP Operations & General Manager) was sending Ski Patrol staff onto the roofs of buildings after hours in known contravention of the Alberta Occupational Health & Safety Code Part 9 (Fall Protection) to shovel overhanging snow hazards and remove cornices. A small crew of Patrol staff agreed to do the job so that untrained, inexperienced staff did not get sent to do it.  The Patrollers were  already trained in rope rescue techniques and used these skills to provide some level of safety on the roofs  It was understood that this interim measure still failed to meet the Code but would give Sunshine Village an opportunity to become Code compliant.  The agreement with Derpak was that Patrol staff would do the job for the 08/09 winter season if Sunshine embarked on an ongoing program to install fall protection systems the following summer.

Now, keep your eye on that ball here…

In the midst of the court decision, safety audit and associated PR campaign an executive management decision was made about the rooftop snow shovelling safety code problem.   Ken Derpak apparently decided to create some “distance” between Sunshine Village Corporation and the workers he was sending up on the roofs.  Derpak set up an arrangement to pay them through Dennis Allen’s external safety consulting business.  Dennis Allen had nothing to do with planning the work, providing the workers or overseeing the job yet for some reason the Sunshine workers were paid through his business although in fact he had no direct contact with the Sunshine staff that suddenly got put on his payroll.    When the Patrol staff questioned the reason for this “policy” no reasonable explanation for the edict was given by Derpak but it was the way it would be.   Other than the paychecks issued, there was apparently no other formal “paper trail” generated.  No employment records, no pay statements, no T4s.  More notably Dennis Allen’s safety company, which was now “responsible” for ensuring the health & safety of the workers, did no hazard identification, no risk analysis, no written safe work plan and no training checklist.  The work went ahead, but it seemed like a strange way to be making sure everything was “as good as it can possibly be”.

Creating a safe and healthy workplace requires a commitment of time and money to create a culture and positive accountability system that makes safe work possible. It requires that the company create a safe work environment and set of safe behaviours that can be seen in not only the results (less injuries and illness) but be viewed in the process of work. Very safe companies not only have the documented process of creating safety, but they can demonstrate by the way they work that safety is the “way it is around here.” (Emphasis added) ~ Failure In Alberta” by Alan D. Quilley CRSP ( June 21, 2010)


A (Calgary)Herald investigation published in June (2010) found that between 2003 and 2007, the province rarely prosecuted companies for safety breaches linked to fatalities on the job. In April (2010), the (Alberta) auditor general criticized the government for inadequately cracking down on employers who repeatedly break safety laws.  The Alberta Federation of Labour wants the province to unveil a plan for more aggressive prosecutions. “Employers must be made to pay the price for putting the workers’ lives at risk, but this is still not being done,” Nancy Furlong of the Alberta Federation of Labour said. ~ Alberta employment minister vows ‘hammer’ will come down on workplace safety violators (Sept 03, 2010)

Even where a system was installed on the roof of the main Sunshine Mountain Lodge, it was improperly supervised and maintained. This photograph shows a synthetic lifeline negligently left out on the roof to be buried in snow and stretched by snow creep. This also evidences inadequate training and disregard for following documented safe work procedures.

Only a few months later, in the summer of 2009 when the new multi-million dollar wing of the Sunshine Mountain Lodge was built, there was no budget for a consultant recommended rooftop fall protection system. Sunshine Village boasted about its Banff Heritage Tourism Award for the new building but failed to prioritise installation of Code required worker safety systems during its construction.   John Scurfield (VP Marketing and part-owner) described the building as an example of the Scurfield family’s “latest commitment to excellence”. Whatever kind of excellence he’s referring to, it’s not workplace safety code compliance.   That wasn’t in the budget.

Two and a half years later, Sunshine Village has yet to install OH&S Code compliant fall protection systems on all but one Village buildings requiring rooftop snow and cornice removal.  Sunshine still places workers on roofs in known breach of the OH&S Code.  Meanwhile there has been a massive exodus of senior staff in safety related roles.  Despite Firby’s public promise that Sunshine “wants to make sure it never happens again” an internal Sunshine Village memo issued in summer 2010 (while $millions were being spent on the new Strawberry lift and Creekside renovation.) stated that; “Unfortunately there is no budget to continue installation of more fall protection on roofs at this time. ”  That’s a distinctly different message than the one Doug Firby was delivering to the media in January 2009.

On July 1, 2011, the Government of Alberta will tighten up the guidelines for obtaining and maintaing COR certification of Health & Safety Programs.  Let’s hope something changes because of it !  Workplace safety is a matter of urgent public interest and concern.  Parks Canada should make strict annual external COR audits a standard requirement for private corporations like Sunshine Village that hold operational leases in Canada’s national parks.  It’s time that all levels of government get serious about workplace safety and hold corporations accountable for action.    Workers are dying on the job in Alberta.  The Code is there for a reason This is no game!