Parks Canada Should Investigate the Avalanche at Sunshine Village

Sometimes there are deep-seated instabilities in the snowpack that lie dormant, while all appears normal, waiting for just the right trigger to unleash disaster.  Likewise sometimes there are deep-seated and well-hidden flaws in safety management systems that have very much the same effect.  It will take an independent and objective investigation to see if that is what played any part in last Monday’s almost-killer avalanche at Sunshine Village.

In December 2010 Sunshine Village embarked on a labour relations strategy that was associated, to some extent, with an almost 100% turnover of the Snow Safety department responsible for avalanche forecasting and avalanche control.  It is this department that is responsible for the management of the avalanche hazard in the Delirium Dive area as well as the other big avalanche paths that affect the in-bounds advanced terrain at Sunshine Village.

At the commencement of the 2011/12 season only one avalanche technician remained on the Snow Safety team from the start of the previous season.  This was the result of a massive and wholly unprecedented turnover that included firings and resignations.

Normally employee turnover in the Snow Safety department is minimal with only one or two changes per season, if that.  This minimal turnover rate allows for gradual and progressive training and mentoring of new Snow Safety team members to develop the specialized skills, knowledge and judgement that are essential for the safe management of areas such as Delirium Dive.  It also allows for effective supervisory oversight and review of all information and an effective and essential well-informed, team-based, decision making process.

To compound matters, during the 2010/11 and subsequent season there was also considerable turnover within the Ski Patrol department which works very closely with the Snow Safety team.  Again this turnover was closely related to the labour relations strategy that affected the Snow Safety department.  Typically Snow Safety team members are chosen from  experienced senior ski patrol staff and both departments rely heavily upon each other.  At the commencement of the 2011/12 ski season the Ski Patrol department also experienced an unprecedented high turnover of staff and a large influx of very new and inexperienced ski patrollers.

The combined effect of this turnover was a massive loss of skills, knowledge and experience on both the Snow Safety and Ski Patrol teams.

Avalanche forecasting is as much art and judgement as it is science.  It relies on teamwork and a constant flow of information and observation and even “gut-feelings” from experienced personnel who are highly familiar with the area and the terrain and who know its history.  Employee certification is just the very start of this process.  Certification does not make anyone an expert, in fact there are very few lone “experts” in avalanche forecasting.  Team input, evaluation and critique is essential to sound decision making.

On March 31, 2014 two guests were caught and injured in a very large avalanche in Delirium Dive.   According to various news stories one guest was completely buried and both were seriously injured.

Milky Way (centre) - scene of the March 31, 2014 in-bounds avalanche at Sunshine Village that caught and injured two guests

Milky Way (centre) – scene of the March 31, 2014 in-bounds avalanche at Sunshine Village that caught and injured two guests. This was not the first time Milky Way slid while the Dive was open.

Sunshine Village says that everything possible was done to make sure the area was safe. Sunshine Village also says that it is investigating the incident.

The question that arises is will Sunshine Village honestly and objectively investigate to what extent the massive Snow Safety and Ski Patrol staff turnover may have weakened the training, mentoring and staff development of the departments responsible for managing the big avalanche terrain like Delirium Dive.

The next question that arises is, if that turnover did create weaknesses in the team, did that weakness play any part in the factors leading up to the serious avalanche incident on March 31, 2014.  If it did, would Sunshine Village admit it?

Aircraft accident investigators know that almost any incident is caused by a chain of factors and not one single factor.  Often those factors include human error, training issues and failures in the safety management system. This even occurs with highly professional and well-trained pilots and maintenance technicians.  That fact is not just applicable to aircraft incidents.

Air crash investigators leave no stone unturned to discover all the factors that lead to an incident.  That is the process that leads to true learning and true safety.

Will Sunshine Village conduct such an investigation?  More to the point – should Sunshine Village conduct such an investigation?  Sunshine Village has yet to complete any sort of investigation and make the results public but the company is already making public relations statements that appear biased and which raise more questions.

The CBC reports the following comments from Sunshine Village’s  spokesperson:

Over the past week, the resort used explosives and helicopter bombing to stabilize the snow and skiers criss-crossed the area to check the stability, said spokesman Crosbie Cotton.“In fact, on the morning of the incident, two trained avalanche experts were in Milky Way checking it, cutting it, criss-crossing it and they deemed it safe.”

Can the public trust this company statement as an objective and informed investigative conclusion or is it just more PR and marketing?  Is Sunshine Village’s spokesperson saying that this huge in-bounds avalanche slope was not checked and/or evaluated since that morning?  Hopefully that was not the case.

An avalanche area deemed as safe in the morning may not be safe in the afternoon.  This is especially true in spring conditions when mid-day solar heating often plays a significant role in snowpack stability. An avalanche path like Milky Way needs more than just a morning check.  It needs regular evaluation during the day by knowledgeable staff who can feed pertinent information to the decision process. Sunshine’s statement, at least as reported by the CBC, leaves this in doubt and it needs to be clarified.

It’s not the first time that Milky Way has avalanched while Delirium Dive was open to the public.  Was this fact known and taken into account by all the ski patrol and snow safety staff on March 31, 2014?  History and experience matters and it takes time to pass that on and time to learn it too.  A ski area can’t turnover snow safety and ski patrol staff the way it does ticket sellers and lift operators – not when it routinely opens big avalanche terrain like Delirium Dive.

This is no small thing.  People nearly died.  A near miss doesn’t get any closer than this.  It is Parks Canada that is ultimately responsible for public safety within Banff National Park.  Parks Canada should independently and diligently investigate the incident and publish its findings in a formal and reviewable report to the public.  This is not a matter than can be left to a private corporation with a vested interest in the outcome.

How long does it take to replace the combined effectiveness of decades of experience, skill, knowledge and cross-departmental teamwork? Quite possibly an objective investigation will find that the massive loss of experienced Snow Safety technicians. ski patrollers and senior mountain operations staff during and shortly after the 2010/11 season played no part in the incident that occurred on March 31, 2014.   But the point is, we won’t know unless someone takes an honest and objective look at that particular factor as part of an independent and thorough investigation.

This was not just a public safety incident but also a workplace safety incident.  It may not have directly affected any workers but it affected their workplace and their work tasks and process.  Accordingly Alberta OH&S should also take a close look at this incident.

Media Update:  Avalanche survivor owes rescuers ‘the world’ (Calgary Herald – April 4, 2014)

A Young Worker’s Life Under Rug Swept!

Sunshine Village donates $50,000 to Selkirk College but forgets to mention worker killed on the job.

Karl Stunt – Killed on the job at Sunshine Village – August 31, 2004

Karl Stunt was killed on the job at Sunshine Village on August 31, 2004.  He was one of the all too many workers who are killed on the job in Alberta every year.  As a result of the workplace fatality Sunshine Village Corporation was found guilty of failing to ensure the health & safety of its workers.  Sunshine Village was fined and ordered to pay an additional $250,000 to Selkirk College in BC .  This endowment was intended to honour the memory of Karl Stunt and to raise awareness of workplace safety amongst students in the Ski Resort Operations and Management Program.

Sunshine Village Corporation put its lawyers to work and in 2010 succesfully appealed the decision claiming it could not have foreseen the incident.  That contraversial finding was never tested as Alberta Employment and Immigration mistakenly chose not to continue with the case.  Sunshine paid it’s lawyers but chose at the time not to proceed with the endowment.

Because the scholarship was part of the original conviction and sentence, which has now been overturned, ski hill operators aren’t obligated to go ahead with it, resort spokesman, Doug Firby, said Sunday.Alberta ski lift worker’s ‘legacy’ lost: family” (CBC – August 2, 2010)

Karl’s father – Bill Stunt – expressed his sadness and dissapointment at the time.  “It’s the one small thing that we had out of this almost six-year process was some kind of legacy for Karl in a way that … could have done some good for some other person in his circumstance working in the ski industry,” he said.

On May 17, 2011 Sunshine Village announced a donation to Selkirk College of $50,000.  The mainstream media picked up the feed and parrotted it.  Only the Rocky Mountain Outlook drew the connection (see clipping below) and noted that not only was the endowment but a fraction of the original court-ordered payment but that also there was absolutely no mention of Karl Stunt, whose life it was originally intended to honour.

A belated and paltry $50,000 is better than nothing, but compared to a life it’s not much.  Sadly though the ski management graduates of the Selkirk program will not learn of that lost life and the safety awareness cause originally intended as the endowment’s purpose.  Sunshine Village has killed that opportunity it seems.   Maybe, seven years after Stunt’s death,  that’s just the way Sunshine Village wants it.

“We don’t know of any morale issues”

“Most of us apply filters to to the things we say, and, most of the time, that’s a very good thing.But we become so skilled at censoring ourselves and filtering our thoughts that we can lose site of our ability to be frank and honest – sometimes even with ourselves. That’s not so good. “  ~ Doug Firby “Unfiltered”  (from www.dougfirby.ca – which has been password protected since this link was made)

On January 19, 2011  some Sunshine Village ski patrollers chose to not show up for work in protest of the firing of another patroller, concerns over loss of senior staff and resulting perceived safety issues that they felt were not being heard by Sunshine Village management.  As a result of the walk-out only three lifts were operating that day at Sunshine Village.  By late morning, the walk-out had garnered immediate and massive media interest and coverage.

Doug Firby is Associate Director, Communications, Media and Marketing, for Sunshine Village Corporation. He reports directly to John and Ralph Scurfield.  Firby made the following statements to the media that day:

“We don’t know of any morale issues,”  ~Doug Firby (Calgary Herald January 19, 2011)

(Firby) said he hopes the sick patrollers are feeling better and back at work on Thursday. “We’re taking them at their word on that,” he said. “I mean the best thing would be for them to just talk directly to us about whatever issues might be on their mind.” (CBC January 19, 2011)

Doug Firby, a spokesperson for Sunshine Village, questioned the authenticity of the calls to the media, telling Fast Forward Weekly, “We actually don’t know whether these people are actually Sunshine staff or not.” Management, he added, has not heard of any of the allegations firsthand, nor can it discuss any personel issues publicly. (FFWD Weekly – Jan 19, 2011)

The following internal Sunshine Village email from that day was sent out at 10:03 AM well before any patroller or Doug Firby spoke to the media and shows that Sunshine already did in fact know the real nature of the walk-out and the reasons for it.  The email refers to known “internal issues” with staff and directs front-line workers on what to say to customers who apparently, so it states, didn’t need to know the truth of the matter.  The email makes  it clear that the request comes directly from Sunshine Village management.

So when Doug Firby told the media later that day that Sunshine Village was completely surprised, had not heard the allegations, did not know of any morale issues and was not sure these were even Sunshine Village staff – either he wasn’t in the loop or he simply wasn’t telling the unfiltered truth to the reporters.

Despite Firby’s assurances to the patrollers that they should “talk directly” to management, two more patrollers were  fired the following day for expressing their safety concerns on camera.

Many more senior staff have left since and are continuing to leave.

Here’s the “unfiltered” internal email that shows what Sunshine management knew that day and when they knew it!

From: Steve Novak
Sent: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 10:03 AM
To: All Aramark
Subject: Happenings today

Good morning,

With todays lift interruptions I want to ensure that we stay focused on serving our guests with nothing but the best quality product and attention. Any guest who paid for a lift pass today should have received a $20.00 voucher from guest services. If they did not on their way up they may pick it up at the end of their day. The only guests who do not receive a voucher will be season pass holders.

It is important that we help communicate this message as much as possible.

Our guest does not need to know about the internal issues Sunshine is having with its staff so please use the response of “unexpected lift interruption” when people ask why we are only running with 3 lifts. This is the request of Sunshine management.

If you have any questions about today please do not hesitate to contact me directly.

Skier count may get just over 1000 today so please be diligent with staffing levels. Remember, do not sacrifice the guest experience!

 Thanks,

 Stephen Novak
General Manager – Food & Beverage and Retail
Aramark Sports, Entertainment & Conventions West Region
Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort
p 403 762 6584 | c 403 431 4331

steve.novak@skibanff.com

PPlease, consider the environment before printing this e-mail

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