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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 1 | Jan. 10, 2002

Grab and go guru

When it comes to planning for a disaster, Judi Van Swieten is UBC's ace

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 Complex.

"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 emergency preparedness.

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 significant disruptions.

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."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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