Satellite phones key in government operations when the Big One hits

Busy signals, power outages and fallen antennas likely to hamper conventional mobile networks 


Two years after the auditor general gave it a failing grade for earthquake preparedness, the B.C. government is playing catch-up, and satellite phones for senior officials are a key part of its business continuity planning strategy.

Documents obtained through a freedom of information request show that deputy ministers were briefed in June 2015 on B.C.’s Earthquake Immediate Response Plan and the role of senior officials in the event of a disaster, which can cause telecommunications network congestion and destruction of communications infrastructure.

Becky Denlinger, the deputy minister in charge of Emergency Preparedness B.C., began meeting in December 2015 with fellow deputy ministers “to discuss risk, preparedness and continuity of government operations.”

“On a practical level, our sessions indicate a need to revise and refresh satellite phone skills,” Denlinger wrote in an April 27 email memo. “The ability to communicate lies at the heart of every response effort. In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake, conventional methods of communication may be disrupted. Satellite phones have been issued to ministers and deputy ministers as a means of facilitating urgent communication when standard methods are overwhelmed or unavailable, and it’s important that we’re comfortable using them.”

The Purchasing Services Branch ordered 30 Globalstar GSP-1700 satellite phone units in March 2015 for $14,112 from Coquitlam’s Chroma Communications Group. Chroma was one of six companies that responded to an invitation to quote. The handsets included minimum four-hour talk time batteries, satellite network coverage for all of B.C. and the ability to provide SMS text messaging and internet access. But having the satellite phones on hand was not enough. They have particular directions for use, because they are more complex than a typical smart phone.

An Emergency Management BC (EMBC) tip sheet says the phone antenna must be fully extended and placed at an angle. Reception can be hampered by dense vegetation, tall buildings or a lack of open space. The handsets must be used outside, with a clear line of sight to the sky. “This is because the phone must be able to see the orbiting satellites from 8.2 degrees above the horizon. The phone will not work indoors or anywhere viability to the horizon is obstructed.”

The directions continue: “Go to the highest and clearest point available to assist you in making a successful call.”

During the annual Emergency Preparedness Week in May, Denlinger scheduled a three-hour window for the first annual senior officials satellite phone drill. The exercise scenario contemplated a 6.9 magnitude, shallow crustal earthquake hitting Victoria at 8:30 a.m. on May 6. The previously scheduled drill began a half-hour later with directions for deputy ministers to use their government-issued satellite phones to call the EMBC Emergency Coordination Centre to report whether they were at work or not. Twenty-three of 27 deputy ministers listed participated. Denlinger was in Toronto and called on her mobile phone.

Protocol for a significant event, including a natural disaster, calls for B.C. government officials to report their whereabouts, within an hour of a serious incident, to the EMBC deputy director’s email, the round-the-clock Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre toll-free hotline or, if neither are working, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. Information is then supposed to be relayed to the Lieutenant-Governor, the Legislative Assembly and cabinet operations to understand leadership locations and logistics, identify where succession may be required and communicate emergency cabinet meeting information.

In 2014, then-auditor general Russ Jones concluded that successive NDP and BC Liberal governments had done little since 1997 to improve planning. He found EMBC “cannot demonstrate that it is adequately prepared to manage the effects of a catastrophic earthquake.”

The July 2015 plan was the first blueprint for disaster response for use by EMBC, ministries, Crown corporations, federal and municipal officials and First Nations. It is based on two scenarios — a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in Vancouver and magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Victoria — that assume a disruption to communications, critical infrastructure and food and water supplies. A U.S. disaster model based on such a quake estimates 1,400 would be dead, 18,000 injured and 14,000 displaced in Victoria.

The documents released to BIV refer to a government building outside downtown Victoria as the “1st alternate site” for recovery of high-level government operations in case of the big one.

A report in 2006 by Zeidler Partnership Architects recommended an eight-year, $182 million retrofit to protect the late-19th-century Parliament Buildings in Victoria from a devastating earthquake. Last year, MLAs floated the idea of soliciting private donations to pay for the project.

An office building at 4000 Seymour Place site was toured and approved by the Premier’s Office, the Premier’s Protective Detail, cabinet operations and EMBC operations for executive and emergency operations recovery. The building already includes some government offices and its benefits include round-the-clock operations, front lobby security, two BC Hydro feeds, backup generators, a wireless IT network, large parking areas and a potential helicopter landing pad.

Port Alberni hosted the first full-scale major earthquake and tsunami exercise last June, called Exercise Coastal Response. The annual Great B.C. ShakeOut “drop, cover and hold on” earthquake drill is coming Oct. 20.