Fire trucks will rush to the Pine Centre Mall on Wednesday morning. Alarms will clang, there will be a total evacuation from the hallways and common areas. Stores will vacate and shutter their premises.
We know this now because it is a scheduled drill. Unlike a false alarm, however, a drill is undertaken with life-like seriousness. And it has never been done before at northern B.C.'s largest shopping centre.
When Sonya Hunt was named PCM manager four years ago, she undertook a consultation series with outside partners, inside staff, and the 100-plus merchants who do business there. One of the things identified in that process was a desire to have better emergency protocols. This sounded alarm bells for Hunt who was managing West Park Mall in Quesnel when a real fire broke out there and she watched in fascinated dismay as the situation unfolded.
"Tenants didn't want to leave, customers didn't want to leave, people complained that this had affected their lives, people were pushing against the exiting people to go get that item they 'just had to get real quick' for their dinner party that night... and this wasn't a drill, it was an actual fire," she said.
"It drove home to me how important it was to have good procedures in place, it had to be clearly communicated to everyone who would be involved, and people needed to know exactly what their role was."
It took Hunt more than a year, in wide consultation with other shopping centres and emergency response professionals, to draft a custom-designed fire escape plan. Once that was done, the merchant tenants were approached for their input, and another draft process took place.
With anywhere between nine and 18 mall staff on site at any given hour, and up to 15,000 people inside the mall, Hunt knew a safe evacuation could not be accomplished without direct tenant involvement. More time was spent designing merchant roles - store fire marshal and assistant marshals - for active participation in incident management.
"I got the buy-in I was hoping for. The tenants all understood intuitively that safety in moments like this could not be underestimated, and they wanted to help," she said.
They began to hold group meetings and in recent months they have held fire drills about every four to six weeks during off-hours.
"When we held our first mall-wide fire drill the fire department was quite critical, because we asked them to assess it and critique it," said Hunt.
"That led us to even more revisions and test them out. On Wednesday morning we are going to do it again but for the first time it will be with the stores open and customers involved in the evacuation. I don't think it will go off without a hitch, but I expect our biggest lessons will come from our biggest mistakes."
In addition to fire drills, mall merchants have also been trained in what has become known as the Active Shooter scenario: someone with a gun intent on shooting large numbers of strangers. When a thief used a hammer to smash a series of display cases, many of the merchants heard the shattering glass and enacted their Active Shooter training.
"It was so awesome to see them take the actions they had been trained for, even though it was not a shooter," she said.
"It showed me that people will do the correct thing if they have the appropriate information. I am certain that every time we do any of these drills it will lead to lives being saved when a real incident does occur."