Parks Canada Should Investigate the Inbounds 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 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?