Public Safety and the 2010 Opening Day Incident

A cautionary tale about how two simple errors and an unforeseen chain of events can have significant safety consequences and what the lesson implies for public safety in Banff National Park.

One of the regulatory requirements for operators of aerial ski lifts is that each lift must have a back-up drive in ready, operating condition.  The prime mover, or engine that normally drives the lift can fail.  If it fails it immediately strands the passengers on the lift who are suspended in the freezing air.  Even at reasonably moderate winter temperatures, the threat of hypothermia is real under such a circumstance.  So the regulatory standards require that each lift have an auxiliary motor capable of promptly moving a fully-loaded lift until all passengers have safely unloaded.

As a last resort, in the event that the lift cannot be moved at all, a rope rescue is required. Rescue personnel lower the passengers to the ground.  In the case of Sunshine Village it is not just a lift safety regulation that adequately trained and competent rescuers be available, it is also a requirement of the company’s lease agreement with Parks Canada.

On Opening Day 2010, Sunshine Village was proudly opening its new Strawberry quad chair for the first time.  Everything was ready, or so it seemed. Eager guests rushed to ride the new high-speed lift.  Only an hour after the season started and the lift opened, a new power transformer with an incorrect connection exploded in the parking lot and power supply  failed at every lift and building on the mountain.  All the lifts stopped dead including the fully loaded Strawberry Express and the 5km long gondola.

Very quickly it became clear that the power supply would not be restored promptly.  The gondola and other lifts began to run on auxillary.  The Strawberry Express did not.  Neither did  the Standish chairlift which, although it was not yet open to the public, did have Sunshine  trail crew  and ski patrol employees on the lift.

As the minutes ticked by lift staff discovered that the fuel tanks for the auxiliary motors had not been filled prior to opening to the public.  Suddenly a relatively simple problem had just become much more complicated.  Most transportation equipment emergencies are the result of multiple causes combining to exceed safety and response capabilities.  Now, only an hour into the new season, Sunshine Village staff were faced with a fully loaded lift and no way to move it.   Employees scrambled to transport the necessary fuel to the lifts, fill the tanks and start the auxiliary motors.  All that took time.  Meanwhile, Sunshine Village’s paying guest hung on the chairs in the freezing air, and so did the employees on Standish.

In accordance with the written emergency response procedures, ski patrol evacuation teams  were positioned at designated locations on the Strawberry lift line to prepare for a last resort rope evacuation.  Eventually however the shiny new addition to Sunshine’s fleet of “super-lifts” began running and an hour after the initial failure all the public were clear of the lift.  Shortly afterwards some very cold employees were finally clear of the Standish lift.

The point of this article is not to point fingers at any individual or department.  Mistakes happen.  In fact, mistakes should be expected and anticipated.  No-one is perfect.  “Human error” is the root cause of most disasters despite even the best efforts of highly trained and competent safety personnel.   The point is that a series of simple oversights and an unforeseen chain of events can lead to a life-safety emergency.  On a ski hill this kind of thing can arise in a hundred different ways  and despite the best efforts of trained and experienced employees, sometimes these things do happen.  In fact they happen more often that the public realizes.  Only occasionally does the incident even make the news, as it did with the Whistller gondola incident in 2008.

When emergency incidents happen in the mountains, minutes make a difference.  The critical factor is the availability of a sufficiently trained and experienced team of responders.  Earlier this year, the Calgary Herald reported on an exchange of communications between Sunshine Village and Parks Canada in which Parks Canada formally complained to Sunshine Village that the company had failed to meet the safety response requirements of its lease when it operated with a greatly reduced ski patrol presence on January 19, 2011.  On that day a large number of ski patrollers did not report for work for reasons related to the firing of yet another ski patroller and concerns about safety.

Sunshine responded to Parks Canada and very quickly the whole matter was swept under the carpet.  Apparently all was well in paradise.  But was it really?  What concerns did Parks Canada raise?  What claims did Sunshine Village make in response? To what extent did Sunshine Village push the safety capability envelope that day?  And to what extent did Parks Canada ensure that the claims made by Sunshine Village were in fact valid and sufficient to meet the lease obligation, not just on paper but in real-world public safety response capability?

If the 2010 Opening Day lift incident had happened on January 19, 2011 instead, would Sunshine Village have been capable of responding adequately to protect the safety of its customers and employees?

Sunshine Village Watch has obtained copies of all  the communications between then Parks Superintendent Kevin Van Tighem and then Sunshine VP of Operations and acting Mountain Manager, Ken Derpak.

Parks Canada has a prime obligation to protect the life and safety of each park visitor.  In this respect, Parks Canada has a fundamental regulatory obligation to ensure commercial operators meet the safety and response provisions of their lease obligations not simply on the basis of semantics but on the basis of real life response capability.

This is an issue regarding the provision of public safety services by commercial operators in Canada’s national parks.  It is also an issue about the diligence of Parks Canada in ensuring that the lease obligations of those operators are being met and that the lease provisions are sufficient to ensure that people are in fact as safe as possible when they visit a commercial operation in the park.  In the end, the buck stops with Parks Canada and the federal government.  Are they doing their job?

It is improbable that the power transformer connection and auxiliary fuel tank oversights will combine and re-occur.  The real question is what will be the next chain of events that lead to a public safety incident and is Parks Canada and Sunshine Village fully prepared for it?


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