Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sifting Through the Rubble: Facts and Myths in Earthquake Safety

What is the right thing to do when the ground starts shaking? Ask this question to a room full of people and you’ll get a variety of answers. “Stand in the doorway” is a common one. That option is easily debunked if the room has one doorway and you do a quick test of how many people in the group can fit in that doorway. If there are engineers or architects in the room they might point to certain structural strong points in the building and make a case for heading towards those. Some might also mention the Triangle of Life theory. This comes from a viral e-mail/internet message that recommends a complicated system for identifying where the void spaces will be in a structural collapse.

Here are the problems with all these ideas. First, they are based on the assumption of structural collapse. While there are no guarantees, building codes in the United States, especially in earthquake-prone areas like the Pacific Northwest, go a long way to minimize the potential for building collapse. Second, these theories fail to recognize that most injuries and deaths in U.S. earthquakes result from falling or flying furniture, equipment, lighting fixtures, and so on. Lastly and most importantly, none of these are quick solutions. When the ground starts shaking, all of that furniture and equipment could start flying in seconds. You won’t have time think, let alone call your engineer friend and ask him to recommend the choicest spot.

Emergency managers, public safety officials, and earthquake experts are unanimous in their recommendation for what to do: when the ground starts shaking (don’t wait for the official earthquake announcement!) drop, cover, and hold. Dropping, covering your head under a table, desk, or other sturdy furniture, and holding onto the furniture offers the best protection in most situations. Visit for more information.

Sadly, even after discussing this topic, if the ground actually starts shaking our room full of people are likely to follow their instincts. They’ll make a run for it. We’ve seen it time and again. Just look at Youtube videos of just about any earthquake. Unless you make a decision now to drop, cover, and hold and, better yet, you actually practice it, the fight or flight reaction is going to take over and you may get hurt.

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