Behind the scenes: how B.C. rescue crews prepare for major quakes

Canada Task Force 1 is the Vancouver-based team that will spring to action when a major earthquake or natural disaster hits. This is how it prepares for the worst.

Canada Task Force 1 will get the call if a disaster strikes British Columbia

Can TF1 member and paramedic Sean Penner crawls out of a pile of rubble used to stage earthquake rescue exercises. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Sean Penner works a huge rotating saw blade into a thick slab of concrete. Engine screaming, it starts cutting into the reinforced concrete as though it were butter.

If this were an actual emergency instead of idle training, an earthquake victim would be trapped in the gnarled heap behind the slab.

Penner is a paramedic with the B.C. Ambulance Service. Most days he responds to medical emergencies, but at least a couple days each month, he's at the Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services training yard in East Vancouver.

Penner is a member of Canada Task Force 1 (Can TF1), the heavy urban search and rescue (HUSAR) team based in Vancouver. It's one of four such teams across the country, with another two planned.

Dust flies as BCAS paramedic Sean Penner cuts into a slab of concrete. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The team is largely comprised of firefighters, but there are also police officers, paramedics like Penner, doctors and engineers. 

Can TF1 is the 132-person team that will spring to action if disaster strikes in British Columbia, and chances are very good that a major earthquake will eventually strike the region.

Along with lifesaving skills, Penner brings mechanical skills to the team — he's responsible for making sure the millions of dollars worth of equipment and heavy power tools are ready for action.

Paramedic Sean Penner performs regular maintenance on a ring saw used to cut through concrete. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"I feel ready to go, you know, worrying about stuff doesn't change whether it's going to happen or not," he said. "Being prepared for it is important and we are very prepared, we train often and keep our skill sets up so we can deal with an incident when it comes along."

The HUSAR warehouse in East Vancouver is stocked with huge boxes and industrial-strength trunks. They're loaded with everything needed for a sustained earthquake response.

"In here you're going to see is everything we need, from shelters to heaters to water to communications equipment, plus all the equipment we need out in the field, all our clothing, and anything we could possibly need when we're gone for up to a 10 day deployment is in here," explained Kirk Heaven, Task Force leader and manager of Can TF1, as well as a training officer with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

Can TF1's warehouse in East Vancouver is stocked and ready for a disaster. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"You're probably looking at about $3.5 million to $4 million worth of equipment," he said, adding that it takes a small convoy to transport it to a disaster staging area.

"We've been out a few times over the last few years, so we're here if needed," said Heaven, adding that they responded to the 2012 Johnsons Landing slide and the 2013 floods in Alberta that killed five people, to name just a couple deployments.

Along with keeping the equipment organized and in perfect working order, Can TF1 keeps its skills sharp.

Sean Penner suits up with the necessary safety gear to approach 'The Pile' where earthquake rescue simulations are staged. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The facility includes a confined space training area, where a maze of concrete pipes and passageways test a rescuer wearing a breathing apparatus as they weave their way toward a mock victim. There's also a trench area for practicing industrial accident rescues.

Then there's the giant heap of gnarled debris, reinforced concrete, cars, and even a smashed up TransLink bus. That's 'The Pile' where Penner demonstrates how to penetrate through the mess toward a victim with a Husqvarna rotary saw.

A huge heap of wood, concrete and metal debris has been piled up to simulate a building collapse in an earthquake scenario. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We change it around and we structurally engineer it so it's safe, but it also adds a full element of what you need for training," said Eric Barron, Can TF1 logistics specialist and Vancouver Fire lieutenant.

"We'll put, you know, victims — live victims sometimes, sometimes we'll use dummies."

"If we have one of those 8.8, 9 [magnitude earthquakes], according to, say, FEMA in the States, everything from the I-5 west will look like this," he said gazing toward the crumbled concrete, overturned vehicles and exposed rusted rebar. "So we're going to be in dire straits here ourselves."

Task Force leader Kirk Heaven looks at the smashed up bus in 'The Pile.' (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

According to Barron, if the megathrust quake strikes and triggers a tsunami near Vancouver, Can TF1 will be quickly overwhelmed.

"I don't want to be a doomsayer, or anything like that, but if it's a fairly large earthquake and it's fairly high and it's fairly close, I don't know a lot of our buildings are engineered to withstand earthquakes. Our older buildings may not be," he said.

"The military would mobilize, the Canada Task Force teams would mobilize and there would be a lot of different help coming ... There's a fair chance that if something happened up here, the U.S. would come here to help. They have internationally deployable teams."

A dummy lies in the rubble where Can TF1 practices earthquake rescues. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Barron pointed out that even the False Creek flats area where the Can TF1 gear is stored would be vulnerable to a tsunami and liquefaction if rattled by a strong quake.

But so long as the Can TF1 members' families are safe, they'll report for work. Once logistics are organized — the biggest challenge, according to Barron — crews will be picking through the rubble.

"We will get to you eventually," said Penner. "But you know, there's a lot of people out there, and sometimes some people will be left quite awhile before they're seen to by us, so they should be prepared for a few days of water and food."

CBC reporter Anita Bathe gets a tour of 'The Pile' in East Vancouver where rescuers train with simulated building collapses. 2:14

This story is part of Fault Lines, a special CBC series on new thinking and new technology for predicting and surviving earthquakes in B.C. Download our five-part podcast. Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker