Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This Quaketips blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Some updates to standard earthquake preparedness and response advice

A friend of mine sent me a link to an interesting LA Times article about some modifications to the classic “Drop, Cover, Hold On” earthquake response.  I recommend checking it out.  It makes some common sense suggestions such as updating the common advice to get under a table and hold on, to incorporate covering your head with your hand as you get to the table, which makes sense considering that you sometimes have to travel a bit to get to a safe spot and could be beaned in the head on your way.

This got me to thinking about the various ways in which our understanding of not only quake-resistant construction, but also quake precautions and quake response, has changed over the years.  We’ve certainly come a long way since the days that preparing for an earthquake involved live human sacrifices, but even in the last few decades, the official advice has evolved a bit.

For example, as I mention in my talks, when I was a kid in LA, we were taught to brace ourselves in a doorway during an earthquake; but this is a vestige of days long ago when many Southern California homes were adobe buildings with wooden door frames.  The adobe would collapse during large quakes and the door frames would still be standing, but modern buildings are much stronger and the door frames don’t really offer structural support advantages any more.  What’s more, in door frames that contain doors, you could get hit by the door, your fingers could get crushed, etc.

Here’s one that I have started mentioning in my talks relatively recently.  (Sorry to those who recently came to my talks; I really will cover some new material here.)  When you are in bed, if your bedroom has been set up correctly, it can be safer to stay in bed during a quake than getting out of bed to get to your predetermined safe spot.  It seems that people have been getting injured during earthquakes as they tried to get from their bed to their dining room table because they had to go through less predictable and potentially hazardous surroundings, such as random objects on the floor, perhaps whatever wasn’t stuck down flying through the air, your pet porcupine running around panicked in the hallway, etc.  If nothing can fall on you because you haven’t hung anything over your bed, your nearby bookcase is braced to the wall, you don’t have a loose heavy potted plant on top of that bookcase, and you don’t have top-heavy glass-bowl floor lamps ready to tip over and whack you in the face, then they say you may be safer on your big bumper car of a bed with your head protected by the pillow than running around on the floor.

What about if you want to check on your small children in the other room?  (I have heard that when my parents came to get me and my sister out of bed during the 1971 Sylmar quake, coming out of their bedroom, they were going uphill.)  I believe some official advice has been to make sure your kids are secure in their beds and to check on them after the quake.  My friend Larry Guillot—bless his heart, he tells it like it is—wrote in one of his occasional e-mail newsletters coincidentally also called “Quake Tips” that “Parents: you won't stay in bed, so be careful (crawl if necessary) when you go to your children's rooms - and keep them in bed until the shaking is over” and of course make sure that the route from your room to your kids’ rooms is secure.  Still, it can actually be very difficult to get out of bed during violent shaking, even if you want to, so be forewarned!

One big change has been in the recommended length of time for which you have stored supplies.  Remember  3 days was the recommendation years ago, but based on accumulated experience in various disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 7 days became the recommended period of self-sufficiency, and now some sources are recommending 2 weeks.  Nothing like a few real-world disasters to blow away any rosy expectations of how long it can take to re-establish basic services!

Having a landline corded phone for use in an extended power outage has been good quake preparedness advice for many years, but as landline services get phased out, that advice might be completely out of date in not the too far future.  Similarly, the advice to have an out-of-town contact whom people in your area can call if they can’t dial across town but can dial out of town is likely to become archaic as text messaging, social media, and who-knows-what-is-next (telepathy app??) take over the world.

And don't even get me started about the ill-conceived attempt to “change” the recommended advice from getting under something indoors to getting next to something (the so-called “Triangle of Life” urban legend).  The problems with this myth are already discussed in one of my first articles.

As for me, I have always encouraged the use of maze picture hooks to hang pictures on the wall, but as you can see in my previous blog post, I feel I can change that advice to include the use of Command picture hanging strips as an excellent alternative.

Now here’s a thought: what would I like to see changed in the official quake preparedness/response advice?  I think if you read my article a few months ago about situational awareness, you will not be surprised: I’d like to make sure people know that all of these things that we advise you to do when an earthquake hits are good advice in default situations, and that people MUST be aware of any unique safety hazards and take care of them before they do anything else.  The best example, as discussed into the ground in my article about unattended flames, is that if you have a candle burning, especially one that can fall over onto the rug or sofa, your number one, above-all-else priority before getting under something or finding the kids is to blow that thing out!  (...and watch for smoldering wicks.)  Otherwise, you may have a house fire, perhaps even with leaking gas, and that table you are under ain’t gonna do you much good.

Here’s one I’ll bet you didn’t think of.  Ever accidently scorch dried hot chile peppers in a frying pan?  You get tear gas; it can be extreme.  If I were cooking kung pao chicken and a quake hit, I would first turn off the flame, and hopefully have the good sense to dump the wok’s contents into the sink before diving under the table because otherwise I might be overcome by the fumes.  Think I’m kidding?  I accidentally burned arbol chili peppers in the kitchen of the home I lived in while a grad student, and not only was I wishing I could submerge my head and lungs in ice water, but the neighbor’s cat, who always hung out in our backyard by the window when I would cook, fled!

In the unlikely event that you had a tub of bleach next to a tub of ammonia, better stop them from sloshing into each other.  I know I’m stretching a bit here, but I just wanted to give you an idea of the kinds of unusual circumstances that might pre-empt the usual advice about what to do during a quake!

I would imagine that evolving technology will continue to change our basic advice on what to do before and after a quake.  For example, let’s all hope that it isn’t too long before the main question of “what should we do when a quake suddenly hits?” changes into the new question of “what should we do when our ubiquitous earthquake early warning systems tell us a quake will hit our location in 30 seconds?”  In the meantime, this is a worthwhile topic to monitor, which you can do pretty following this blog!

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