Category Archives: Corporate Governance

A Tangled Web !

Sunshine Village’s communications to Parks Canada only serve to further confuse public safety timelines of January 19th, 2011.

When it comes to issues of public and workplace safety comunications at Sunshine Village Ski and Snowboard Resort there is no excuse for anything but the truth at all times.    The company should be held to an exacting standard of corporate conduct as a condition of its lease.  This is especially applicable when the issue is about the safety of people’s lives and well-being in Canada’s premier national park.  Not only do park visitors, customers, employees and government agencies deserve honesty but it’s also a legal obligation.  

So has the Sunshine Village management been honest, forthright and truthful with all groups regarding the events and safety issues of January 19, 2011 ?  

hon·est

honorable in principles, intentions, and actions; upright and fair: an honest person.

Lie

To lie is to hold something which one knows is not the whole truth to be the whole truth, intentionally.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lie

On the day in question Doug Firby (Sunshine media handler) spoke to the media about a patrol “walkout” that day and expressed the company’s surprise about the whole thing.  Firby told the media that Sunshine Village had no knowledge of what he termed “morale issues” raised by the patrollers. He said that Sunshine took the patrollers “at their word” (such irony), hoped they all got well soon and came back to work. He encouraged them to speak to management promising they would be heard and all would be well again. The next day, when the patrollers took Firby at his word, two of them were fired when they returned to work and the rest were questioned and threatened.

Sunshine Village Watch has previously shown that at the same time that Doug Firby was presenting this disarming official corporate line to the media, an internal email from Steve Novak (Aramark’s Sunshine Village GM) showed what the management actually knew about the “issues” and instructed the resort’s Food and Beverage staff to lie about it to Sunshine’s paying customers.  Novak attributes this lie to “Sunshine management” (an interesting example of their management and leadership style).  So while many of Sunshine’s professional ski patrollers, in the midst of unprecedented peak-season department changes, were taking desperate measures to get attention to their immediate safety concerns, Sunshine was telling resort staff to lie to Sunshine’s customers  and tell them it’s an “unexpected lift interruption”.  The email claims that Sunshine’s paying guests didn’t need to know the truth of the matter.

Then Parks Canada got involved.  Parks Canada is the federal government agency charged with administering the lease provisions including those that are meant to ensure that public safety requirements are met (paragraph 29).  The expectation of all Canadians is that even if the private corporation is off-track, Parks Canada will ensure safety standards are upheld.  The emails and letters to Parks Canada show that Ken Derpak (then Sunshine Village GM, VP of Operations and acting Mountain Manager) came up with his own version of the timeline of events in his communications to then Banff Superintendent Van Tighem.

In his amusingly petulant letter of March 4th, 2011 Derpak states that Sunshine called Alberta’s lift regulatory agency AEDARSA on the morning of January 19th “prior to opening” and discussed Sunshine’s operating plan with them.  So presumably well before Doug Firby was telling the media his “we know nothing” story later that day, we have Ken Derpak claiming to discuss an alternative, presumably detailed and hopefully written gondola evacuation plan with AEDARSA before opening the gondola to employees arriving for work that morning (usually at 7:30am).  He must have been moving very fast,  very early that morning to ensure that “all necessary safety precautions” were addressed as per the lease requirement, which of course is strange given that Doug Firby said they “knew nothing”  and so consequently would have known nothing until patrollers didn’t show for work (usually around 7:30am).

In the same letter Derpak tells Parks Canada that Sunshine had already made a back-up plan and contracted with Rodney Gair and Lifeskill Rescue Services prior to January 19, 2011.  In his email of January 21, 2011 Derpak included a written note from Rodney Gair that was coincidentally dated January 19, 2011 and stated that Lifeskill had agreed to provide services that week with “immediate effect”.    So is it just coincidence that Derpak had developed an arrangement that very week with Gair supposedly prior to January 19th when Firby later says the company knew nothing of any “morale issues” with the patrollers?

Does any of this really matter?  The answer is YES, it really does!  Very much!   When fully loaded, the Sunshine Village gondola carries more people through the air than many commercial airplanes and there’s plenty that can and does go wrong.  Evacuating the full length of the gondola (both sides) would be an extremely challenging public safety emergency requiring precise site-specific planning, training and implementation.  You don’t make this stuff up on-the-fly on the back of a breakfast napkin.  In his letter, Derpak is making formal representations on behalf of Sunshine Village to a formal inquiry from the federal agency charged with ensuring public safety in Banff National Park.  What Sunshine management knew, when it knew, what actions it took and why it took them all needs to be very clear and transparent.  Under examination here is the ability of Sunshine Village to make appropriate public safety decisions for park visitors even when they may negatively impact the corporations profit and image.  Unfortunately Derpak’s unsubstantive letter only raises more questions about that.

It is appropriate for Sunshine Village to publicly clarify exactly who Derpak spoke to at AEDARSA and exactly when the communication occurred.  This information can then be verified with AEDARSA (surely both sides documented such a discussion?).  Derpak should also provide the written evidence of the comprehensive alternative gondola evacuation plan that he discussed with AEDARSA that morning , which apparently replaced the standard procedure that day, and which was presumably and verifiably distributed to ALL managers, dispatch and key response staff PRIOR to opening the gondola to Sunshine staff that morning (yes even employees on their way to work are people too).  Those documents would begin to support Derpak’s version of events and even explain (maybe) his disrespectful and petulant manner. They would also help to establish Sunshine Village’s compliance on January 19th, 2011 with AEDARSA‘s public safety ski lift regulations (CSA Z98 Code) and the Parks Canada lease obligations.

Without that definitive supporting evidence Derpak has simply added more puffery to a tangled web of words.  However in unexpected balance, the email from Steve Novak to his F&B staff was quite clear.  Sunshine management was certainly lying to their customers that day – Novak, to his credit, was refreshingly honest about that fact.  The question now is, if they will lie to their customers, are they being honest with Parks Canada?

To keep up with further updates and discussion of this issue please follow Sunshine Village Watch on Facebook or Twitter

Public Safety Investigation By Parks Canada

Recommended reading for your next ride on the Sunshine Village Gondola.

On June 18, 2011, the Calgary Herald broke a story about what it called “testy relations” between Parks Canada and Sunshine Village on matters related to public safety.  That story has since disappeared from the Calgary Herald website but here are emails and letters that tell the story directly.

The issue arose on January 19, 2011 when a group of Sunshine Village professional ski patrollers took an unprecedented step and chose not to report for work.  Spokespersons for the ski patrollers cited workplace and public safety reasons including a lack of necessary manpower to safely do their job and a repeated failure of senior management to listen and respond to their concerns.   Sunshine Village management stated that the patrollers should come back to work and they would be listened to and any problems would be addressed.  The next day when they returned to work each patroller involved was individually interrogated by senior management executives and two were fired.

Despite the presence of only a skeleton crew of ski patrollers that day, Sunshine Village executives chose to operate the gondola (almost 5km long), three lifts, all main facilities including the Sunshine Mountain Lodge and extensive ski and snowboarding terrain.

Paragraph 29 of the token Sunshine Village Lease states as follows:

29. The Leasee will in accordance with good standard ski area practice:

(a) exercise all necessary safety precautions in connection with the operation of the ski lifts;

(b) provide ski patrols and first aid services on the lands by an adequate staff of experienced and qualified personnel;

  • On January 21, 2011 an email from then Sunshine Village GM & VP Operations, Ken Derpak evidences a phone call from Parks Canada superintendent Kevin Van Tighem regarding safety concerns arising from operational decisions on January 19, 2011.  Derpak’s email is a response to a phone call from Van Tighem and attempts to justify a decision to operate the resort and in particular the almost 5km long gondola with a vastly reduced ski patrol staff that day.  In addition to the lease obligations (above), Sunshine Village is also bound by Alberta law to provide adequate lift evacuation capability.
  •  Derpak’s email apparently failed to gain traction at Parks Canada.  Four days later, on January 25, 2011, Sunshine Village was sent a formal notice from Parks Canada in which Van Tighem  states he is of the view that on January 19, 2011 “there were insufficient qualified staff available to evacuate the Gondola in a safe and timely manner in the event of an emergency”.  The notice also states that it is Parks Canada’s position that Sunshine Village “failed to exercise all necessary safety precautions in connection with the operation of the ski lifts and it did not have the necessary qualified staff to provide evacuation services for injured persons”.
  • On January 29, 2011 Derpak responds to Van Tighem by email and expresses surprise, confusion and uncertainty regarding the safety standards expected of Sunshine Village by Parks Canada.  The email evidences internal discussion with Ralph Scurfield (President) and Murray Howland (CFO) but there is no mention of any discussion with Sunshine Village public safety staff (ski patrol).
  • On January 31, 2011 Van Tighem responds by email to Derpak stating that the matter is one of “legal liability and due diligence” and that “it is in Parks Canada’s and Sunshine’s interests to confirm that the concerns (Van Tighem) raised have been fully addressed”.   Presumably it is also in the interests of the thousands of visitors to Banff National Park who trust and use Sunshine Village facilities but they are not specifically mentioned.
  • On February 4, 2011 another email from Van Tighem to Derpak  directs Sunshine Village to the applicable CSA standard (which has been adopted as law by the Province of Alberta) as “helpful” in formulating Sunshine’s response.
  • On March 4, 2011 Parks Canada replies to Sunshine Village.   Did Parks Canada exercise appropriate diligence in verifying the representations made by Sunshine Village in its letter date March 4 ?  How could Van Tighem and his staff have possibly found the time in what must have been mere hours, to diligently ensure that Derpak’s representations were substantive, complete, forthright and reliable?

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?