UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 1 | Jan.
Grab and go guru
When it comes to planning for a disaster, Judi Van Swieten is
by Hilary Thomson staff writer
The complex dynamics of emergency response were shown to the world
on Sept. 11 but Judi Van Swieten has been confronting community
catastrophes for almost 20 years.
She has worked as a firefighter, ambulance attendant and safety
officer and in 2000 joined UBC as disaster planning co-ordinator
in charge of organizing the university's response to emergencies
that might range from a chemical spill to a building collapse.
"A disaster is any event that overwhelms your ability to respond,"
she says. "You have to be prepared for the worst and work from there,
often changing the plan as you progress. Flexibility, adaptability
and creativity -- those words guide my career."
A third-generation Vancouver Island native who says she has salt
water in her veins, Van Swieten was a volunteer firefighter in the
early 1980s for the island community of Bowser. Most fire departments
are predominantly male, however, men in the small town often worked
in larger centres so the community's women stepped in to serve as
volunteer firefighters during the day.
Duties often involved waiting for ambulances to arrive from the
nearest station 20 minutes away in Courtenay or Parksville, prompting
Van Swieten and others to approach the provincial government to
set up a station at nearby Qualicum Beach.
Their efforts created a new service with Van Swieten selected to
serve as unit chief with supervisory responsibility for 12 volunteers.
They responded to regular ambulance calls and worked in partnership
with the local Coast Guard service.
After almost a decade of balancing her career with caring for up
to six children including her daughter, stepchildren, grandchildren
and foster children, Van Swieten moved to Dawson Creek in northeastern
B.C. in 1990.
Work as a first-aid attendant and safety officer on gas drilling
rigs and pipeline and mine construction sites got her accustomed
to remote locations. Helicopter rides through minus forty degree
weather and brilliant sunny skies would take her to camps that could
be 1,500 metres up in the Rockies.
"Some days, I couldn't believe I was getting paid to be there,"
she says. "I've seen so much of B.C.'s natural beauty that most
people never get to experience."
Usually the oldest person in camp and often the only woman, Van
Swieten says she was seen as a mother figure in camps populated
by dozens of young men.
Armed with a tiny sewing machine, she would mend workers' clothing
and act as an unofficial counsellor and problem-solver during in-camp
stints that could be as long as 60 consecutive days.
While there, she helped co-ordinate medical and air transportation
response to emergencies ranging from mangled fingers to burn victims
from an exploding gas drilling rig.
She celebrated her 50th birthday with drillers and truckers who
were drilling a pipeline beneath the Murray River near Tumbler Ridge
in northeastern B.C. In that three-month sojourn she also cooked
one meal a day for both the day and midnight shifts. Featured menu
items were barbecued elk, moose and venison.
It was in Dawson Creek that Van Swieten expanded her first response
experience to include training in emergency management. She volunteered
as the town's deputy emergency manager from 1991 to 1994 and crafted
their emergency plan.
Returning to the island in 1996 Van Swieten became involved as
a volunteer in Emergency Social Services (ESS), a component of emergency
response that provides food, clothing, lodging and other services
for victims of disaster and for responders. As ESS director,
she was instrumental in building the town's service from about 10
people to 120 active members within two years.
She notes that retirement towns such as Parksville often have excellent
emergency volunteer resources because retirees may be as young as
50 years with considerable energy and skills along with a desire
to contribute to their new community.
At UBC, management, junior staff and work-study students that she
mentors value Van Swieten's depth of experience.
"Judi has a wide knowledge of emergency management," says Mark
Aston, manager, Environmental Programs in the Dept. of Health, Safety
and Environment. "She has very detailed expertise and has worked
right across the province -- that gives her real credibility in
her consultations on campus and in her training sessions."
Van Swieten's work has included refining the university's disaster
plan. An exercise to test the disaster plan was carried out last
June. More than 45 people took part in an Emergency Operations Centre
response to a simulated ammonia leak at Thunderbird Winter Sports
"UBC was one of the first organizations to create an emergency
operations centre team using the new B.C. Emergency Response Management
System," she says. "It's a huge training curve to familiarize people
with their role in an emergency."
UBC's proactive approach has been praised by representatives of
the provincial emergency program, especially since the university
-- although the same size as many municipalities -- falls outside
the framework and resources for municipal emergency programs.
One aspect of disaster planning is training individuals in personal
Last year's Feb. 28 Vancouver earthquake that registered 2.5 to
3 on the Richter scale as well as the Sept. 11 disaster in the U.S.
created an acute awareness of the need for preparedness, says Van
Swieten. Training demands increased so significantly that she has
hired a staff trainer.
Consultation and training needs have evolved over her 20 years
in the business. The original focus was response only, she says,
followed by preparedness and mitigation such as non-structural seismic
upgrading that includes reliable fastening devices for bookcases,
lighting fixtures and sprinkling systems.
Emergency management now includes recovery planning that outlines
contingency measures to ensure business can be resumed even after
Qualifications are changing, too, Van Swieten says.
"We're in a transition stage -- disaster planning is recognized
as a legitimate discipline. We're seeing more individuals with academic
backgrounds getting involved. But the practical experience has to
be there, too," she says, adding that Canada is moving toward accreditation
for those working in the discipline.
Although Van Swieten's workday is focused on calamities, and her
home has a `grab and go' bag full of emergency provisions, she isn't
full of gloom and doom.
A gardener and a reader, she also volunteers at UBC's International
House to welcome students at the airport or help at holiday dinners.
Her advice to people wondering how to prepare for disaster?
"Just do it -- even small steps like storing water can make you
feel more in control. We can't prevent bad things from happening
but we can manage them well."