10/23/2012 01:41 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

Red Cross ready to boost B.C. emergency crews in event of the Big One

VANCOUVER - It's been more than 300 years since one of the world's largest earthquakes rumbled and razed parts of British Columbia.

But for people working in the emergency response field, each day of relative peace galvanizes them to urge the public to get ready for another such disaster.

Heeding warnings no one yet knows when will become reality, the provincial government signed a formal agreement with the Canadian Red Cross Tuesday to add an extra layer of help should catastrophe strike.

"We have a saying in the disaster business that the inappropriate time to share business cards is during a disaster," said John Byrne, director general of disaster management for the humanitarian organization.

"We've selected to be very proactive together with the government in supplying this sort of service."

The province has always had the option to call in the Red Cross in case of emergency, but the agreement Byrne signed with Attorney General Shirley Bond formalizes the partnership.

The announcement coincides with a conference in downtown Vancouver that brought out dozens of Canadian experts on disasters and risk reduction.

While boosting government and other public resources is crucial to helping citizens during an disaster, it is even more critical that individuals take their own steps to get prepared, a federal bureaucrat told the conference.

Graham Flack, acting deputy minister for Public Safety Canada, recalled when power was knocked out in Quebec for more than 72 hours during the 1998 ice storm.

There would have been even greater devastation had the entire affected urban area simultaneously turned to the Red Cross, municipal and provincial governments for essential services, he said.

"It is inconceivable that we could have provided enough resources to have been able to deal with all of them," he said.

"The overall message needs to be, emergency preparedness is your responsibility. ... Emergency management starts at home."

Flack said the public should familiarize themselves with the 72 Hours campaign at to learn how to get ready.

On Jan. 26, 1700, a 9.0 megathrust earthquake violently shook Vancouver Island. Homes belonging to Cowichan First Nations people collapsed and landslides slicked mountain sides. A subsequent tsunami left no survivors in the winter village of the Pachena Bay people, according to the federal natural resources ministry.

Experts expect a similar, offshore quake to roll through the region in the future.

With such ongoing predictions in mind, about 600,000 people across B.C. participated last week in the province's annual Great B.C. ShakeOut earthquake drill.

Should a major shaker overwhelm local and provincial emergency workers, the new Red Cross agreement means it's ready to mobilize upwards of 200 trained personnel from across Canada within 24 to 48 hours.

If the need is greater still, more people in specialized teams called Emergency Response Units could be dispatched from the U.S. and the organization's Geneva headquarters as well, said Byrne.

Bond said the agreement brings together Emergency Management B.C. and the ministries of health and of social development.

It gives the Red Cross seat at the table in planning and protocol discussions, and the groups will conduct joint training and exercises. It doesn't require new government funding, she added.

Byrne said the Red Cross has great confidence in B.C.'s current response plan, and the message at the Tuesday conference backed that up. Participants shared the view the work that's necessary now is to build "resilience" prior to a disaster, in order to mitigate what happens in its wake.

Flack told the conference "lots more needs to be done."

"The federal government had historically resisted providing funding for mitigation, it was seen as a provincial responsibility," he said.

But even Ottawa is coming to recognize early preparation could pay off, he said.

Some 20 years ago, the federal government paid $20 to $30 million annually in insurance payouts following a disaster. That's now ballooned to costs in the $300 million a year range, he said.

"That is not sustainable," he said.

But following unprecedented floods in Manitoba in spring 2011, the prime minister announced for the first time the government will invest $100 million over three years as a "mitigation investment," with the aim of providing more permanent funding.

"I think we need to work in that direction," Flack said.