BC gets a jump on the big one

Mitacs policy fellow helps the province prepare for earthquakes

The province’s need to be prepared is even more urgent. An earthquake has a domino effect on infrastructure and services. It can knock out power, and damage railway tracks and bridges. It disrupts essential services that hospitals and emergency personnel need to do their jobs. Although on average 3,000 quakes occur in BC each year, the province has not had its readiness tested by a major event recently. But it could happen at any time.

Emergency Management BC (EMBC) is the province’s lead coordinating agency for all emergency management activities. British Columbia is currently working with its partners in the development and implementation of a comprehensive Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system, which generates an alert to warn of the imminent arrival of damaging shaking. An EEW can provide several seconds of advance notice, and thus an opportunity to trigger immediate and even automatic actions that can save lives.

To take advantage of an EEW system, EMBC needed to better understand the actions that should happen during or right after a warning. They needed insight into how other jurisdictions manage, as well as how others’ best practices can be applied in BC’s unique environment.

EMBC turned to Mitacs’s Canadian Science Policy Fellowship to find expertise for the project. The fellowship provides access to highly qualified PhDs from across the country, and it enabled EMBC to build a catalogue of recommended earthquake early warning response actions.Canadian Science Policy Fellowship at Emergency Management BC

Dr. Jyoti Upadhyaya brought the skills and academic expertise EMBC needed. She has a PhD in engineering from the University of Windsor and extensive experience in the design, development, and management of infrastructure projects. “Her knowledge, skill sets, and unique approach to problem-solving helped her quickly understand the very technical subject of earthquake early warning systems,” says Robert White, Seismic Specialist at EMBC.

Although located at the time in Ontario, Jyoti was open to new opportunities. “I knew about Mitacs,” she explains. “When I saw this fellowship with Emergency Management BC, I knew that my experience with infrastructure engineering and multidisciplinary research could help.” She began the project with a charter to define its values for the public and the government, a scientific approach to researching global best practices, and a focus on including participation from internal and external parties who could inform the recommendations.

Input from around the world was central. Jyoti researched nine countries that have implemented, or are implementing, an EEW system and response actions. Through interviews and participation in working groups, she gained detailed knowledge about how others are trying to address devastating earthquakes. “In Japan, for instance,” she says. “Utilities can be automatically shut off.”

Through her research, Jyoti summarized over four dozen best practices that can be applied to help save lives in BC in the event of a major earthquake. Some involve automatic emergency response, such as opening fire station doors and shutting off gas lines. Some are human-assisted, such as doctors stopping a surgery. Others outline actions for individuals, such as what to do if you’re driving, or make recommendations for buildings, like elevators automatically stopping and opening doors.

Jyoti also defined and documented a methodology that can be used by EMBC on subsequent projects, and she combined best-practice analysis with expert recommendations for the environment and infrastructure specific to the West Coast. “BC has unique challenges such as a ferry system,” Jyoti explains. “We needed to come up with solutions ourselves for those areas.”

Ultimately, Jyoti’s project empowers BC through evidence-based policy. It gives EMBC a blueprint for action that they need as leaders in emergency management. “Jyoti’s efforts have enhanced EMBC’s projects and initiatives and will help EMBC contribute to a resilient province,” says Robert.

Jyoti reflects, “The fellowship was a rewarding experience. I learned about cutting-edge developments, government policy, communication aspects, and overall functioning of the EMBC and BC public service.”

Since the fellowship, Jyoti has been hired full-time into the public service, and EMBC is considering hosting more policy fellows to support their crucial role in the province. Although the catalogue has yet to be finalized, EMBC continues to explore ways it can advance and build upon Jyoti’s work. 

The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship is made possible thanks to Professor Sarah Otto, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia; the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy; the University of Victoria; and the Canadian Science Policy Fellowship Advisory Council.

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