The Value of Risk Assessments
© 2011 FrontLine Security (Vol 6, No 4)

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has initiated a research program to answer these questions and empower communities across the country to build risk assessment capacity. In partnership with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and supported by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), NRCan’s Earth Sciences Sector has developed a risk assessment framework known as Pathways that aims to link ­natural hazard risk assessment with community planning.

Pathways is a standards-based system of processes, methods and tools that is aligned with, and contributes to, national policies and evolving best practices for ­disaster mitigation in Canada. It aims to assist local and regional authorities in ­prioritizing risk management objectives, analyzing changing conditions that may affect vulner­ability over time, characterizing thresholds of risk tolerance, and navigating decision pathways that promote national policy goals for disaster management and sustainability.

“Communities face many challenges in risk-based planning and it is the focus of our research to strengthen mitigation and preparedness strategies across the country,” notes Nicky Hastings, Activity Coordinator at NRCan. “Planners and emergency mana­gers need a common framework for risk assessment and mitigation planning – one that is standards-based and aligned with national policy goals.”

Implemented as a spatial decision support system, Pathways is comprised of several integrated, standards-based tools that facilitate risk assessment, scenario modeling and decision analysis.

Breaking the Damage Cycle
At the heart of the framework is a powerful risk assessment software program known as Hazus. Developed by FEMA, Hazus can model, analyze and predict potential losses from floods, hurricane winds and earthquakes. It runs calculations on the ESRI geographic information system (GIS) platform, and is an extension to ESRI’s ArcGIS Desktop technology. Using this technology, Hazus can be used to visualize spatial relationships between populations and permanently fixed geographic assets or resources for a specific hazard ­scenario. This serves as a critical function in the pre-disaster planning process. It is used for mitigation and recovery, as well as preparedness and response. It can also scale to a study area of any size – a region, community, neighbourhood or individual site. The methodology plays a key role in the assessment step of mitigation planning, which is a fundamental component of a community’s ability to break the cycle of disaster damage.

Modeling Risk and Mitigation
To adapt the tool for Canadian users, NRCan has engaged local groups to uncover operational requirements for risk-based planning in urban centers. For example, they worked with the District of North Vancouver to uncover potential flood risks in the area. Using the Hazus flood model, they developed spatial maps containing depths and extents of floodwater for floodprone creeks and rivers to help assess potential disaster loss due to riparian flooding.

Through a partnership between District staff and the University of British Columbia’s Earthquake Engineering Group, NRCan is also identifying and prioritizing community assets that would be at risk in the event of an earthquake. They combine this data with assets that would help contribute to resilience and, using this information, formulate risk reduction strategies. NRCan and the District are also exploring policy responses that align with a range of identified risk scenarios that the community could face over the next 30 years. This project is aiding the District as it drafts a new Official Community Plan with an expanded focus on anticipated risks.

The District of Squamish has also ­benefited from NRCan’s risk assessment framework. Known as the “Outdoor Recreational Capital of Canada,” Squamish is nestled between Vancouver and Whistler and is geographically exposed to multiple natural hazard threats. Located at the confluence of five major river systems and surrounded by a steep mountain landscape, the area is threatened by high consequence earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, a debris-flow landslide hazard, periodic flooding, storm surge threats in the downtown waterfront area, and wildfire threats between built and natural environments.

In 2007, NRCan began working with Squamish to examine underlying system dynamics that drive conditions of natural hazard vulnerability and risk (specifically floods, earthquakes and landslides) in the community. The principles of Pathways were applied, to study how these conditions would change over time, with ongoing growth and development.

“Users can visualize what a community might look like five years down the road, and map out scenarios that predict how infrastructure will likely be affected by natural disasters,” said Hastings. “As a result, emergency planners can make critical decisions based on facts, and risk assessment becomes a key component of community planning, which is something that simply didn’t happen before.”

To promote adoption of Pathways on a national scale, NRCan will continue to work with local government organizations and communicate the results of their research to inform ongoing strategies for national and regional risk assessment. In conjunction with FEMA, NRCan is scheduled to release a North American version of Hazus across Canada and the United States in the first quarter of 2012.

Pierre Bilodeau is the Defence & Public Safety Industry Manager for ESRI Canada, which provides enterprise geographic information system (GIS) solutions. Pierre retired from the Canadian Forces in April 2008 after 32 years of service as a Military Engineer Officer, including 18 years with the Defence geospatial community. He can be reached at [email protected].
© FrontLine Security 2011