5 Secret Vancouver Worksites

These 5 Vancouver high-security worksites are indispensable – and ? invisible – to British Columbians. Your tour begins now.

Tactical training centre, East Vancouver | BCBusiness
The Tactical Training Centre in East Vancouver is a training hub for law enforcement, military, and security personnel.

These 5 Vancouver high-security worksites are indispensable – and 
 invisible – to British Columbians. Your tour begins now.

On your way to work, dropping the 
kids off at practice, heading out of town, you’ve probably driven by them without giving them a second thought: non-descript, partially obscured, often windowless buildings. Behind the anonymous exteriors, teams of experts toil at crucial work that keeps the province’s wheels spinning. We’ve knocked on the doors, taken the elevators to 
the top, and made it past security to the inner 
sanctums, to raise the curtain and share the 
secrets of five of the most important places you never knew existed.

Tactical Training Centre, East Vancouver

Aveteran Vancouver Police Department officer attends a domestic dispute, police confront bank robbers with hostages, and a research scientist defends himself against a charging grizzly – all under one roof at the 50,000-square-foot Tactical Training Centre, nestled under the VCC SkyTrain station.

“There’s heavy concrete so you can drive a vehicle in there. It has a running-man system so you can move targets laterally,” explains VPD staff sergeant Mark Horsley, TTC planning and safety supervisor. “It has a charging target; we can do a rhino but no one has asked yet.”

A 25-metre and a 50-metre firing range, two simulation rooms, a gymnasium for training, and classrooms all provide tactical training for law enforcement, military and security personnel. The VPD uses half the capacity of the City-owned building; the balance is used for instructor development or is rented to other agencies.

“Training done here isn’t just weapons; it’s everything they do,” says Horsley, including communication skills and what he describes as “empty-handed control,” which includes such defensive tactics as arm-grabbing or using pressure points. Scenarios are drawn from actual cases, with the level of police response escalating or de-escalating depending on an officer’s skill.

The building is as green as it is blue: non-toxic copper and tin bullets are used for target practice, rather than lead bullets, and the subsequent increased ammo costs are mitigated 
by lower energy expenses, since the building lacks heating and cooling. “It isn’t made to be comfortable,” explains Horsley; “it’s like shooting in the city.”

The training centre could operate continuously 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but in practice, a 60-hour training week sees 40 people move through the facility a day in eight-hour shifts.

Cost-recovery measures include teaming up with the RCMP to buy paper targets in bulk, then recycling them (turns out bullet holes aren’t an inconvenience in the resale market). Ammo is bought direct from the manufacturer, and staff sweep up the copper dust for resale to metal recyclers. “It’s very unique for cops to wrap their minds around the concept of cost recovery through exchanging and sharing space,” says Horsley.

Image: Peter Holst

Nav Canada Vancouver Harbour Control Tower
, Granville Square, Vancouver

The Vancouver Harbour air traffic control facility is so well hidden that visitors often end up in a nearby revolving restaurant instead of atop the 28-storey Granville Square. Easy mistake, as the 12-sided glass tower atop the highrise that houses the offices of the Vancouver Sun and Province only offers about 200 square feet of working space, perched 142 metres above the ground. 

“It’s a very, very small area to work upstairs, with a counter around the edge and an open space in the centre,” explains Dave Weston, unit operations specialist and supervisor of the tower’s seven air traffic controllers, who work in pairs. The controllers monitor aviation activities and ensure the separation of aircraft. “We keep them apart or make sure they do it themselves,” says Weston. “We work in a see-and-be-seen environment; if they can’t see, we take over. In a nutshell, we keep airplanes apart and look out for safety concerns. Not just air emergencies; if we see a house on fire or something not right, we report it.”

The tower is owned and operated by Nav Canada, a privately owned, non-share corporation purchased from the federal government in 1996 for $1.5 billion. The corporation runs the civil air navigation services across Canada, and collects revenue from customer-paid service charges.

The Vancouver Harbour control tower monitors about 58,000 movements (take-offs and landings) annually, 80 to 85 per cent of which are fixed-wing aircraft, while the balance are helicopters. And although the mountains are a challenge, buildings are a bigger one for navigation: “We can’t see through them,” explains Weston. 

Float-plane take-offs and landings are equally challenging, since controllers can’t see air traffic at very low levels and, as Weston explains, radar “doesn’t provide us information at sea level.” The solution lies in Wide Area Multilateration, or WAM, a radar-like surveillance technology with sensors around the harbour that listen to transponders, then triangulate the position of aircraft. Both members of each pair of air traffic controllers see the same thing on their screens, but “one does all the work and makes all the decisions,” says Weston. The other is there for backup.

Image: Peter Holst

Somatic Explorations Inc., Coquitlam

Tucked into an industrial park in Coquitlam’s Maillardville, the front entrance and roll-top receiving door of the 4,600-square-foot space give no indication of what is inside. It’s only when you walk past the inner security door that you notice the smell: formaldehyde and rubbing alcohol, explains president Chris Hagey. Somatic Explorations is Canada’s only privately owned gross human anatomy lab, providing frontline health-care providers (not physicians) with access to human cadavers for hands-on anatomy dissection. 

“The only other lab in B.C. is at UBC and it’s only accessed by medical and dental students,” says Hagey. Six cadavers – referred to as donors, not bodies – currently reside at Somatic Explorations. Since it’s illegal in Canada to buy cadavers, they are donated for research purposes, and Hagey gets his from an American society, to whom Hagey pays a fee that covers costs, such as preparing the cadaver for travel. Donors are flown commercially, picked up at YVR, and transferred to this facility.

“They’re prepped – embalmed – before they come, then they’re prepared for education. I spend hours preparing them; they’re prepared in such a way that they don’t need to be refrigerated. They’re resilient enough to handle touch and exploration,” he says.

Neither local nor provincial bodies knew how to regulate Hagey’s business, which was ultimately classified as a funeral home. Hagey says he hopes to break even in this, his third year of operation.

Some 50 to 60 participants, all working daily with muscle, tissue, ligament and bone but having learned from textbooks, attend Hagey’s classes each month. “It makes them better therapists,” says Hagey. “The more they see anatomy and spend time on the interior of the body, it makes everyone who comes through the door a better health-care professional.”


Image: Peter Holst

RackForce GigaCenter
, Kelowna

“If I told you the OMG factor of our business,” says Brian Fry, vice-president of marketing and co-founder of RackForce Networks Inc., “I would have to kill you.” He’s joking, of course, but only just. 

“The dollars that flow through our system are astronomical. Millions and millions of dollars are affected by what we do. Communication is not a segment of the economy; it is the economy. This facility advances communication many times the rate of telcos,” he says.

The facility is RackForce’s GigaCenter, a 30,000-square-foot building in Kelowna on industrial land near Dilworth Mountain. With two major data halls, the server farm provides hybrid hosting and infrastructure support to the cloud – the next generation of IT services. Working with partners including IBM, RackForce provides bandwidth of up to 10,000 megabits per second (an average home user has 10 megabits coming in and one megabit leaving). RackForce also has the capacity to grow to 40 megawatts of power, the equivalent of powering 40,000 homes at any given time.

Its 1,500 customers in 100 countries, some paying in excess of $10,000 a month, enjoy the region’s reputation for being seismically stable and having a reliable power infrastructure, and although Fry would love to share who his customers are, he explains that “they don’t want the world to know their data exists inside our building.”

The facility can support 572 racks, enough to house 10,000 physical servers, though it currently has 100 racks and 1,500 servers. As can be expected with equipment that is the nerve centre of client businesses, security is tight: “It has all the latest in security technology: cameras, man traps, proximity scans, fingerprint and card readers.”


Image: Peter Holst

Cascade Aerospace Inc.
, Abbotsford

On their last leg into Afghanistan, Canada’s troops arrive in C-130s, the same kind of plane that drops survival packages to fishermen stranded on ice floes in the North. It’s up to the folks at Cascade to keep the tactical-lift airplanes functioning. “We manage that fleet for Canada; that includes maintenance, parts, modifications, and engineering technical data and analysis,” says CEO David Schellenberg. “We manage the aircraft’s life.”

Privately owned Cascade sits in a custom-built 230,000-square-foot building at the east end of the Abbotsford International Airport. Its 650 workers, when combined with parent company Conair’s staff, make Cascade the largest private employer in the Fraser Valley.

“One of our key contracts is we do a significant portion of WestJet’s Boeing 737 heavy maintenance,” Schellenberg adds. “Every two years they bring in the plane for maintenance and inspection. It’s the same as bringing in your car at intervals.” The hangar holds eight narrow-body aircraft – 737s – though Schellenberg says they can jam in a few more aircraft if they’re smaller. 

Recently, workers replaced the centre wing span of a C-130, extending the plane’s life by 20 years. “It’s a tricky manoeuvre. Everything else is hung off of this,” Schellenberg says of the wing assembly that provides the foundation to hold the plane together. “To lift the old one out, there were 20 guys and a crane. Nothing could move.”

In the middle of the manoeuvre, a fire alarm went off. It was a false alarm, though if needed, a separate fire station underground in the parking lot could have had the hangar chest deep in foam in a few minutes. 

Vending machines are crucial to Cascade, but not for snacks. Initiated by the materials manager, Schellenberg believes they are the first of their kind in the aerospace business. “We require supplies and material. To keep control of the stuff we work with, we went to vending,” he says. “When a work order is scanned with an employee badge, they take what they need and can’t inadvertently take more than they receive,” he explains. “There’s no waste. We don’t own it, our supplier does. It has cut our costs for consumable supplies by 75 per cent. It was a big move with significant savings.”