Five-alarm fears

By Bob Albrecht, Columbian Staff Reporter



A major earthquake could potentially cripple Vancouver’s fire department, leaving some neighborhoods without emergency responders.

Five of the city’s 10 fire stations are vulnerable to collapse in a severe earthquake, according to a local battalion chief who brought this information to the city’s attention nearly four years ago.

The stations all fell below seismic standards laid out in a federally endorsed visual screening test Battalion Chief Mike Senchyna conducted in 2006. The study was distributed in June 2006 to Fire Chief Don Bivins, the department’s logistics chief and the city’s facilities division, according to Senchyna, who said: “I just don’t know what’s been done with that information.”

The battalion chief said the results of his 2006 study should trigger alarm: at minimum, they call for engineering studies strongly encouraged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; at maximum, they indicate continued operation of some stations in the aftermath of an earthquake “is in doubt.”

An earthquake — a potentially devastating earthquake — could come tomorrow, or 200 years from now. But one certainty, according to experts, is that it will come.

Last Sunday’s 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Mexico that caused shaking in three states was the third major quake to rattle the world in 2010.

“This isn’t a pipe dream, like, ‘Oh, we wish we had better stations,’” Senchyna said. “At least three stations, and most likely more, are in pretty extreme danger. In the case of these three, holy cow.”

City leaders don’t dispute the veracity of the study, but instead say they are taking an incremental approach because they don’t have the money to swiftly improve the department’s buildings.

Senchyna acknowledges the difficult budgetary balancing act faced by city officials, but said earthquake preparedness should be treated with a sense of urgency that’s been lacking.

Both Portland and Seattle have in the last decade passed bond measures to retrofit their fire department buildings or construct new stations in preparation for the massive earthquake geological experts say is inevitable.

Portland has built four new stations, and upgraded another 24 firehouses.

Seattle completed work on two stations, with plans to improve a total of 32.

Those cities’ upgrades are driven by one basic tenet: the implications of a destroyed fire station extend beyond the danger to firefighters who live within its walls, reaching the outermost edges of a fire company’s coverage area.

“For critical infrastructure, you don’t want your fire station collapsing on your engines that are going to go out and help people,” said Portland Fire and Rescue Lt. Allen Oswalt.

Predicting big ones

Scientists predict an earthquake every 500 years in the Cascadia Subduction zone, which runs along the Pacific Ocean coastline and is capable of producing violent tremors.

Older buildings, including the fire stations, could crumble. Chunks of concrete from freeway and bridge columns may come crashing down. Some expect underground utility lines to be pulled from the ground, causing fires fanned by ruptured gas lines.

“We’re very thinly staffed on a good day,” Senchyna said. “Even if we didn’t have to worry about danger to our buildings and injuries, we would be overwhelmed within minutes.”

Fire Chief Bivins said he’s delivered presentations on the study to city facilities committees and City Manager Pat McDonnell. The department unsuccessfully sought grant funding to replace the McLoughlin Heights station at 1110 N. Devine Road.

That station rated “fair to poor” by an engineer who examined it as part of the grant application process. It scored better on Senchyna’s study than five of the department’s firehouses. (The Heights station grant was submitted in June 2009 and denied in October).

Since 2005, the fire department has opened two new seismic-ready stations — improvement toward addressing what Bivins termed the city’s “significant vulnerabilities.”

But there’s still a long way to go.

“The five facilities that are identified in that report, those are the ones that we’re going to be paying attention to and focusing our resources on,” said Tim Haldeman, the city’s director of facilities, risk and property services. “We’re chipping away at it.”

Bivins said the results of Senchyna’s study indicate firefighters in various stations are likely to become victims themselves when an earthquake hits.

“The city manager is committed to finding ways to rebuild or retrofit,” said Bivins, sitting inside his office in the department’s at-risk headquarters station, 7110 N.E. 63rd St. “They pretty much need to be rebuilt. That makes the price tag much, much higher. It’s a critical problem, along with a whole lot of other critical problems we don’t have funding for.”

The FEMA method

The FEMA rapid visual screening (RVS) Senchyna conducted is designed to short-list buildings that require thorough assessment, said Yumei Wang, a geohazards team leader with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, who used the method to assess more than 300 Oregon University System buildings.

“Basically it separates things in a good, bad and ugly category,” Wang said of the test. “You need to have a structural engineer look at things in more detail to come up with a better finding.”

Now, nearly four years after Senchyna’s study was completed and published in the National Fire Academy’s online library, http://www.usfa.dhs. gov/pdf/efop/efo39830.pdf, further examination on some stations hasn’t been initiated.

That’s because engineering assessments can cost up to $8,000, Haldeman, the city’s facilities director, said.

Senchyna conducted the study with Battalion Chief Kevin Griffee, who has a background in commercial and residential building. Soil types, the building’s age and visible issues, like cracks, were considered to make up a building’s RVS score.

Even if the potentially disastrous possibilities brewing in the subduction zone were ignored, experts say the city is vulnerable to a magnitude-7 earthquake that could be produced by shallow faults that lie below the Vancouver-Portland metro area. For the purposes of the study, a magnitude-7 earthquake was considered as the most likely event.

According to the RVS test, any building that scores lower than 2 calls for an “immediate engineering evaluation.” An RVS score of 2 implies a 1-in-100 probability of collapse in the “maximum considered earthquake” for the area. A score of 1 suggests the likelihood of collapse is 1-in-10.

The five failing stations were built before 1992, when Uniform Building Codes first elevated the area’s seismic threat. Clark County was designated a “high seismic risk” when building codes were updated again in 2002.

“There were (seismic) standards prior to 1992, and the buildings were built to those standards,” Haldeman said.

The downtown, Cascade Park and Westside fire stations all scored a 1.4 on the test, signaling a 1-in-25 chance of collapse.

The Walnut Grove station, which doubles as the department’s headquarters, scored a 2 on the visual test, while what’s now used as a fire department warehouse, 11207 NE 70th Ave., received a 1.2. The Burton station, a transformed house with an unknown construction date, scored 1.9.

The Westside station, 400 E. 37th Street, rated poorly because of what Senchyna called “vertical irregularity,” which he described as a difference in height between two adjoined structures. “They will pound each other during a quake because of their differing responses,” Senchyna said.

Furthermore, the Walnut Grove station was built on a former seasonal wetland that makes liquefaction a concern, according to Senchyna’s study. Liquefaction is the failure of soils, which start to flow horizontally instead of holding position.

Councilman alarmed

Following a recent walk-through of fire facilities, City Councilman Pat Campbell e-mailed Haldeman, Mayor Tim Leavitt and his colleagues on the city council.

“Basically, it appears an investment in maintenance in these dated, unhardened facilities would be money down the rat hole,” he wrote in the March 17 e-mail. “I believe we need to prioritize building updated facilities before a new city hall.”

A recent New York Times opinion piece grouped Vancouver, Portland and Seattle as having hardly any buildings “designed to withstand a huge jolt.”

While Portland and Seattle have made progress, Senchyna is worried about Vancouver.

His report recommended immediate technical analysis on all VFD facilities, marking stations in need of upgrades or, in some cases, wholesale replacement.

Said Senchyna: “We as a department, and a city, are way behind on preparedness.”