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?


RCMP to Limit Access to Moraine Lake to Head off Traffic Chaos

Most people associate the Rockies with peaceful vistas and serenity — not RVs and buses snarled in gridlock.

But police are warning that traffic and parking chaos on the road to a popular Banff National Park hiking area could result in another weekend of intermittent closures.

So many visitors descended on the region that police were forced to temporarily close Moraine Lake Road. Mounties say the parking lot was over capacity, with cars, buses and RVs backed up for several kilometres.

At one point there was no access for several hours, as RCMP officers stopped vehicles until others left the parking lot. Police wanted to make sure they could get ambulances through in case of an emergency, said Cpl. Jeff Campbell.

“We’re doing it for public safety reasons, because there’s so much traffic and we also want to make sure visitor enjoyment is at a premium, with as little frustration as possible,” Campbell said.

via Calgary Herald | RCMP may limit access to Moraine Lake to head off traffic chaos.

This is the Sunshine Access Road during Christmas Week 2010
It’s at the top of a steep slippery bend in the road – one of the worst sections.
The picture shows Sunshine Village staff  trying to park cars 8km from the gondola base.

How long would it take to clear the pedestrians, back up the car and bus and
get an emergency ambulance through here?  

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.