Preparing for the unpredictable: Lessons for property managers from the 2016 Ottawa sinkhole

Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the 2018-19 BOMA Commercial Space Directory.

Property managers have to be prepared for fires, lockdowns and evacuations – it’s part of the job. But some events, such as natural disasters or those caused by unforeseen human error, are outside of the scope of planning ahead.

One such event is the sinkhole that opened up on Rideau Street in June 2016, caused by nearby construction. The Rideau Centre was evacuated due to a possible gas leak, and nearby buildings such as the  Château Laurier were affected as well, some for days as the issues created by the sinkhole were dealt with one by one.

While most emergency plans may not have a section on sinkholes, Deneen Perrin, director of public relations for the Château Laurier, says every emergency can be broken down into smaller scenarios that every plan should take into account.

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“It’s about pulling it apart,” she says. “You cannot plan for every eventuality but you can probably draw on a couple of events, a couple of scenarios, and kind of mix that together.”

For example, the sinkhole caused the Château and other surrounding buildings to lose gas and power. The Château’s detailed emergency binder has step-by-step plans for each of those situations. Breaking the sinkhole down into those more familiar predicaments is how the team dealt with the aftermath.

The most important part of the emergency binder, however, is the chain of command. The Château has a risk preparedness group, with the general manager at the helm, and in the event of an emergency, that group has a clearly delineated communication strategy that flows from the manager, through the different departments, and all the way to the guests at the hotel.

“The actions are important, but communication is equally as important,” says Perrin. “You want to make sure that those people felt like they were important and they were taken care of.”

Priority on people

Cindy VanBuskirk, the general manager of the Rideau Centre at the time of the sinkhole, echoes this priority: “People first, property second.”

She, too, had a clear line of communication set out for any emergency. Like the Château, the Rideau Centre team broke the emergency down into smaller scenarios when the sinkhole happened. With a possible gas leak, they began with evacuation, prioritizing safety above all else.

For both leaders, the aftermath was equally important; they stress the need for a  “debrief” once the emergency is over.

Perrin says involving people from all levels of responsibility in the formation or review of an emergency plan is key to ensuring the details are taken care of.

“When you’re building a plan, you involve people, because they will think of things you may not have thought of,” she says. Every  unforeseen event leads to new additions or changes to the plan. For example, after the shooting on Parliament Hill in 2014, they added a section to address active shooter situations.

As well, the group began reviewing the binder every six months instead of yearly to account for turnover. Perrin says they can’t risk a single person not being up-to-date on that key chain of communication.

With 426 rooms in the hotel, she says they “can’t afford to set things aside.”

“We are highly prepared for every eventuality,” she says. “We’re dealing with people’s lives.”

This article originally appeared in the 2018-19 BOMA Ottawa Commercial Space Directory. Read the full publication here:

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