What NOT to do during an earthquake

What rescuers and experts DO NOT recommend you do during an earthquake

Based on years of research about how people are injured or killed during earthquakes, and the experiences of U.S. and international search and rescue teams, these three actions are not recommended to protect yourself during earthquakes:

DO NOT run outside or to other rooms during shaking: The area near the exterior walls of a building is the most dangerous place to be. Windows, facades and architectural details are often the first parts of the building to collapse. To stay away from this danger zone, stay inside if you are inside and outside if you are outside. Also, shaking can be so strong that you will not be able to move far without falling down, and objects may fall or be thrown at you that you do not expect. Injuries can be avoided if you drop to the ground before the earthquake drops you.

DO NOT stand in a doorway: An enduring earthquake image of California is a collapsed adobe home with the door frame as the only standing part. From this came our belief that a doorway is the safest place to be during an earthquake. True- if you live in an old, unreinforced adobe house or some older wood-frame houses. In modern houses, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house, and the doorway does not protect you from the most likely source of injury- falling or flying objects. You also may not be able to brace yourself in the door during strong shaking. You are safer under a table.

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DO NOT get in the “triangle of life”: In recent years, an e-mail has been circulating which describes an alternative to the long-established “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” advice. The so-called “triangle of life” and some of the other actions recommended in the e-mail are potentially life threatening, and the credibility of the source of these recommendations has been broadly questioned.

The “triangle of life” advice (always get next to a table rather than underneath it) is based on several wrong assumptions:

buildings always collapse in earthquakes (wrong- especially in developed nations, and flat “pancake” collapse is rare anywhere);

when buildings collapse they always crush all furniture inside (wrong- people DO survive under furniture or other shelters);

people can always anticipate how their building might collapse and anticipate the location of survivable void spaces (wrong- the direction of shaking and unique structural aspects of the building make this nearly impossible); and

during strong shaking people can move to a desired location (wrong- strong shaking can make moving very difficult and dangerous).

Some other recommendations in the “triangle of life” e-mail are also based on wrong assumptions and very hazardous. For example, the recommendation to get out of your car during an earthquake and lie down next to it assumes that there is always an elevated freeway above you that will fall and crush your car. Of course there are very few elevated freeways, and lying next to your car is very dangerous because the car can move and crush you, and other drivers may not see you on the ground!

– UW Emergency Management

Map courtesy FEMA

Map courtesy FEMA

American Red Cross response to “Triangle of Life” by Doug Copp

Recently, the American Red Cross became aware of a challenge to the earthquake safety advice “Drop, Cover, and Hold On.” This is according to information from Mr. Doug Copp, the Rescue Chief and Disaster Manager of American Rescue Team International (a private company not affiliated with the U.S. Government or other agency.) He says that going underneath objects during an earthquake [as in children being told to get under their desks at school] is very dangerous, and fatal should the building collapse in a strong earthquake. He also states that “everyone who gets under a doorway when a building collapses is killed.”

He further states that “if you are in bed when an earthquake happens, to roll out of bed next to it,” and he also says that “If an earthquake happens while you are watching television and you cannot easily escape by getting out the door or window, then lie down and curl up in the fetal position next to a sofa, or large chair.” These recommendations are inaccurate for application in the United States and inconsistent with information developed through earthquake research.

Mr. Copp based his statements on observations of damage to buildings after an earthquake in Turkey. It is like “apples and oranges” to compare building construction standards, techniques, engineering principles, and construction materials between Turkey and the United States.

We at the American Red Cross have studied the research on the topic of earthquake safety for many years. We have benefited from extensive research done by the California Office of Emergency Services, California Seismic Safety Commission, professional and academic research organizations, and emergency management agencies, who have also studied the recommendation to “drop, cover, and hold on!” during the shaking of an earthquake. Personally, I have also benefited from those who preceded me in doing earthquake education in California since the Field Act was passed in 1933.

What the claims made by Mr. Copp of ARTI, Inc., does not seem to distinguish is that the recommendation to “drop, cover, and hold on!” is a U.S.-based recommendation based on U.S. Building Codes and construction standards. Much research in the United States has confirmed that “Drop, Cover, and Hold On!” has saved lives in the United States.

Engineering researchers have demonstrated that very few buildings collapse or “pancake” in the U.S. as they might do in other countries. Using a web site to show one picture of one U.S. building that had a partial collapse after a major quake in an area with thousands of buildings that did not collapse during the same quake is inappropriate and misleading.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which collects data on injuries and deaths from all reportable causes in the U.S., as well as data from three University-based studies performed after the Loma Prieta (September, 1989) and Northridge (January, 1994) earthquakes in California, the following data are indicated: Loma Prieta: 63 deaths, approximately 3,700 people were injured. Most injuries happened as a result of the collapse of the Cypress Street section of I-880 in Oakland. Northridge: 57 deaths, 1,500 serious injuries.

Most injuries were from falls caused by people trying to get out of their homes, or serious cuts and broken bones when people ran, barefooted, over broken glass (the earthquake happened in the early morning on a federal holiday when many people were still in bed.) There were millions of people in each of these earthquake-affected areas, and of those millions, many of them reported to have “dropped, covered, and held on” during the shaking of the earthquake.

We contend that “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” indeed SAVED lives, not killed people. Because the research continues to demonstrate that, in the U.S., “Drop, Cover, and Hold On!” works, the American Red Cross remains behind that recommendation. It is the simplest, reliable, and easiest method to teach people, including children.

The American Red Cross has not recommended use of a doorway for earthquake protection for more than a decade. The problem is that many doorways are not built into the structural integrity of a building, and may not offer protection. Also, simply put, doorways are not suitable for more than one person at a time.

The Red Cross, remaining consistent with the information published in “Talking About Disaster: Guide for Standard Messages,” (visit http://www.disastereducation.org/guide.html) states that if you are in bed when an earthquake happens, remain there. Rolling out of bed may lead to being injured by debris on the floor next to the bed. If you have done a good job of earthquake mitigation (that is, removing pictures or mirrors that could fall on a bed; anchoring tall bedroom furniture to wall studs, and the like), then you are safer to stay in bed rather than roll out of it during the shaking of an earthquake.

Also, the Red Cross strongly advises to not try to move (that is, escape) during the shaking of an earthquake. The more and the longer distance that someone tries to move, the more likely they are to become injured by falling or flying debris, or by tripping, falling, or getting cut by damaged floors, walls, and items in the path of escape. Identifying potential “void areas” and planning on using them for earthquake protection is more difficult to teach, and hard to remember for people who are not educated in earthquake engineering principles. The Red Cross is not saying that identifying potential voids is wrong or inappropriate. What we are saying is that “Drop, Cover, and Hold On!” is NOT wrong — in the United States. The American Red Cross, being a U.S.-based organization, does not extend its recommendations to apply in other countries. What works here may not work elsewhere, so there is no dispute that the “void identification method” or the “Triangle of Life” may indeed be the best thing to teach in other countries where the risk of building collapse, even in moderate earthquakes, is great.

– American Red Cross