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emergency preparedness

Vancouver emergency planner Jackie Kloosterboer says interest in her office’s classes always spikes after an event.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Jackie Kloosterboer could not have predicted the weekend earthquake off the B.C. coast but, based on past quakes, the Vancouver emergency planner knew what was to follow.

By Monday, people – largely condo residents and businesspeople – were calling the emergency management office of the City of Vancouver hoping to sign up for the sessions on coping with earthquakes provided by staff and volunteers.

Any group that can promise a minimum of 15 participants gets a visit from Ms. Kloosterboer or other representatives to talk about planning ahead for a quake and dealing with the days after the event, when emergency personnel will be too overwhelmed to respond to most calls. Among other things, that means bolting down heavy furniture that could topple over and assembling kits of food, water and first-aid supplies.

"The calls are just coming left, right and centre," Ms. Kloosterboer said in an interview. "We're going to see a huge spike in classes."

But Ms. Kloosterboer also expects an exasperating arc: The calls will dwindle away as people forget about the threat.

"While it's in the news, while people are really talking about it, we're going to see the interest up. But in two, three weeks, when it's kind of quietened down and nothing is happening, it will go very quiet again," she said.

Asked why, she said people inevitably put off a response. "They say, 'I'll get my emergency kits tomorrow,' and tomorrow never comes. What if it happens tonight? What if you put it off and you're sitting with your family? You don't want to sit there wishing you had listened to that woman talk about what to do. You've got your family there and no supplies. You're going to be in trouble."

Cam Filmer, executive director of Emergency Management British Columbia, said in a statement that his office is well aware of the Vancouver program and described the opportunity to educate the public on emergency preparedness as useful.

"We hope the recent earthquake will serve as a reminder for all British Columbians to make a plan and be prepared to manage on their own for a minimum of 72 hours in the event of an emergency," he said.

Given an audience, Ms. Kloosterboer says she tries to chip away at complacency. "We try to make them see what it would be like when the earthquake happens," she said. She has never experienced a major quake, but has given a great deal of thought to lessons learned from similar disasters elsewhere in the world.

The 2011 tsunami in Japan and quake in New Zealand generated enough calls to Vancouver's emergency office to prompt 299 sessions attended by 7,600 people last year – a huge spike compared with the 900 people who attended 47 sessions in 2010. So far this year, the office has led 175 sessions for 2,500 people.

The president of the Fire Chiefs' Association of British Columbia agrees that the weekend earthquake will pique interest in preparedness, but that the interest will ebb soon. Len Garris is also the fire chief for the City of Surrey, which offers an outreach program on preparing for quakes and other disasters.

There was a single call for Surrey seminars in each of July, August and September. There have been five calls in October – three of them Monday, he said. Since 2001, his department has provided 565 sessions for a total of 20,398 people.

"It will wane in several months or sooner, and we will go back to a state of disinterest. I am disappointed there isn't a greater, more sustained interest," he said.