Communication protocol in the works for highway closures 

Draft awaiting changes from Drive BC

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Highway closures are not new to the Sea to Sky corridor but Whistler's response to them is getting faster and savvier.

In the few months since resort partners came together to form the Sea to Sky Highway Closure Working Group, the fruits of their labours already seem to be paying off.

February's major snowfall that played havoc with the highway is case in point.

In that instance, Tourism Whistler immediately communicated the situation to its members to stay away from the highway.

"Historically we've always done the reactive as opposed to the proactive," said TW president and CEO Barrett Fisher before council at Tuesday's Committee of the Whole meeting. "I think it's just been really eye opening for all of us."

Similarly, when a truck spilled its load of pipes in early March blocking the highway, the key partners were gathered at a Chamber luncheon on the mountain. One hour later Norm McPhail, general manager of resort experience at the municipality, was at the front desk at the Chateau where the concierge informed him of the closure.

"We've improved in terms of trying to get our information out," said McPhail.

The in-resort communication protocol for highway closures, now in draft form, became a council priority in the wake of two highway accidents in the fall — the first a fatal logging truck accident, which killed a passing motorcyclist at Nordic, the second a double fatal car accident in Lion's Bay which blocked the highway for more than ten hours.

"It (the protocol) will act as a reference document for minor and major road closures," explained McPhail.

The protocol is backed with support from Drive BC; Whistler is waiting to see if Drive BC can customize its support to resort partners informing them of just the road closures that occur on the Sea to Sky Highway, rather than all road closures.

Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb are playing key roles in getting the information out to their customers.

Within half an hour WB can get the information out on Facebook in a promoted post to its 170,000 fans for a cost, said senior vice president Doug Forseth. It can also reach its 55,000 Twitter followers within half an hour too.

It can target skiers and riders on the mountain through the white boards, can extend hours on sunny days, and can work communicating messages in the parking lots too.

Fisher echoed that outreach, adding that Tourism Whistler is doing "parallel communication."

Councillor Jack Crompton asked if Whistler could influence whether southbound lanes or northbound lanes are open first to one-way traffic; that all depends on what's happening on the ground.

But Forseth said it raises on interesting point.

"Certainly people trying to catch flights are very important," he said, of the traffic heading south.

The flip side of that is cutting off the resort northbound traffic on key holidays; a blockage can have major resort ramifications.

"The economic damage to this resort can be millions of dollars," he said, adding that if Whistler has an opportunity to choose which lane opens first it would be good to have that flexibility.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden raised the issue of blanket announcements declaring the highway open and the subsequent mad rush to bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway.

"Just because the highway is open, doesn't mean you can drive it," she said.

That kind of messaging is being considered

"I'm really encouraged," said Crompton, after hearing the update, in particular highlighting the communication with the Regional Traffic Management Centre, the first to notify any highway closures.

From there, the RCMP E-COMM division is informed and then the on-duty captain at the Whistler Fire Rescue Services, who then notifies the working groups and the protocol is initiated.

The mayor is part of another working group of Sea to Sky stakeholders, studying more preventative measures for the highway, looking at areas where accidents occur more than other areas and why.

"It seems like the area around Lion's Bay... that seems to be a particularly bad area," said Wilhelm-Morden.

The internal RCMP reports from both the fatal logging truck accident in Whistler and the double fatal Lion's Bay car accident have yet to be completed. Those reports will outline whether charges will be laid or not in both instances.

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