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Volume 31, Issue 4

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Monday, 29 October 2007 00:34

Earthquake Preparedness Planning

Written by  Melvyn Musson and Humphrey Crook
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Minor earthquakes occur frequently in the New Madrid Zone, and it is only a matter of time before a damaging earthquake occurs. Interest and awareness has increased in St. Louis and the Southeastern Missouri area since Iben Browning announced the possible occurrence of a damaging earthquake in the New Madrid Zone during the early part of December, 1990. Mr. Browning’s theory was based on the gravitational pull generated by the alignment of the earth, sun, and moon on December 3, 1990.

Experience has shown that even moderate earthquakes can have a major impact on a business’ operations and cause severe hardship. Stricken areas in the midwest can expect interruption of water, electricity, gas and telephone services and a shortage of supplies when a damaging earthquake strikes.

In California it is recommended that individuals and businesses plan to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours after a major earthquake. In the midwest that period may be even longer due to the lack of preparedness in both the public and private sectors, and the lack of seismic resistant design for buildings, highways, bridges, and utilities.


There are three major consequences of an earthquake:

  • Injury to employees, customers and visitors. This will also include psychological stress.
  • Damage to property, the infrastructure of the area, and lifelines.
  • Disruption of business operations.

An Earthquake Preparedness Plan will reduce the impact of these consequences by reducing building hazards and educating building occupants on what to do before, during and after an earthquake. It is important to determine the stability of the building and what has to be done to protect the occupants and others against structural and non-structural hazards. Protecting building contents is also important.

Planning for safeguarding inventory, equipment, records and other valuable business property and reducing the chances of the contents causing injury to the occupants is a must. The Earthquake Preparedness Plan should be coordinated with the Business Continuation Plan to permit full recovery of the business operations as quickly as circumstances will permit while maintaining critical business functions at another location(s).

Development of the Earthquake Preparedness Plan involves three separate phases: Hazard Analysis and Mitigation, Response Plan, and Employee Awareness and Training program. All phases can be implemented simultaneously. A flowchart should be developed to outline the actions to be taken in each phase. In the Hazards Analysis and Mitigation phase, the building’s structural stability is assessed and measures are taken to prevent walls from falling and roofs and buildings from collapsing. The actual building design, construction and soil conditions must be considered. Questions and studies on this aspect should be directed to the original architects and engineers or other qualified engineers. The non-structural or architectural review identifies uneven or weakened parapets or cornices, signs over building entrances or exits, unbraced light fixtures or suspended ceilings, and unprotected piping. Preventative action can be taken at a relatively nominal cost prior to an earthquake.

The building contents review identifies potential damage to valuable equipment, inventory and records that can lead to major repair, replacement and reconstruction costs and disruption of business. Falling contents that can injure occupants, block exit routes and possibly start fires must be taken into consideration. Various types of equipment to consider includes computers, emergency power generators and battery systems, tall filing cabinets, storage racks or shelving, communications equipment, partitions, desk top office equipment, and furniture. These potential hazards can be reduced by bracing, securing or restraining the contents using various means and replacing breakable containers with plastic or metal ones.

Certain equipment should be relocated so that it does not block exit routes or cause injury to occupants when it is not practical to brace or secure the object. In the Emergency Response phase we address functions to be taken immediately following an earthquake to save lives, care for the injured, alleviate suffering and prevent further loss. The local government’s emergency response capability will be limited during this time. The functions to be carried out in this period require the existence of a pre-designated emergency response organization. This must be separate from the organization for the Business Continuation Plan.

Procedures should be developed to coordinate the company’s emergency response, establish emergency communications within and outside the company’s facilities, and to authorize and implement critical actions to take care of employees and stabilize the situation. Pre-planning also enables a company to identify the emergency equipment and supplies that it will need in the initial period following the earthquake and in the subsequent period when employees may have to remain in the building until highways are reopened.

In the Emergency Response phase, it is important to design plans detailing specific roles and situations for employees. These programs can be built around existing fire, life safety and evacuation plans. Periodic drills are a must. Awareness programs should be developed so employees will know what to do before, during and after an earthquake. These programs can reduce the risk of injury to employees and visitors. Training programs help prepare employees psychologically for what will be a very stressful period. The awareness program can be expanded to provide information to employees on what they can do at home.

Insurance brokerage consultants can assist in the development of an Earthquake Preparedness Plan. The non-structural and building contents hazard mitigation planning will include the following:

1. Conducting a workshop for Facilities Management personnel to acquaint them with the effects of earthquakes on building contents, mechanical components, furnishings, hazardous materials and other non-structural items within buildings, and with the actions that can be taken to reduce or eliminate the potential damage.
2. Completing a walk-through inspection of the building(s) with Facilities Management personnel to discuss the types of hazards found.
3. Assisting Facilities Management in the development of a report format to identify the non-structural deficiencies found, the work needed for rectification and the cost and time frame for completion.
4. Reviewing the findings of the Facilities Management inspection and participation in the presentation to management for budget approval.
5. Assisting Facilities Management in the development of standard procedures and requirements for use with future renovations, redecoration, building or area changes.
6. Assisting Facilities Management in the development of a continuing inspection program and checklist(s) to identify and rectify new deficiencies.

The earthquake emergency response plan should establish emergency communications within and outside the company’s facilities. Definition of responsibilities and authority for critical actions must be identified and described in the plan. Procedures for management continuity must be addressed. Establishment of team memberships, responsibilities and procedures for damage assessment, emergency information, evacuation, security, employee safety and first aid, emergency shelter and employee care and engineering to abate perilous structural conditions must be addressed.

Training for management and staff and periodic drills must be held. The timing of an earthquake is anyone’s guess. Will you be prepared?

Melvyn Musson, Vice President and Senior Loss Control Consultant for Johnson & Higgins, has been a risk and hazard control consultant for approximately 20 years. He is the leader of J&H’s National Property Loss Control Group’s Disaster Recovery and Contingency Planning Consulting Services. Humphrey L. Crook, Senior Vice President and Senior Account Manager at J&H, joined the organization in 1973 as an account manager. He became a Vice President in 1981 and was appointed Senior Vice President of Johnson & Higgins of Missouri, Inc. in 1990.

This article adapted from Vol. 4 No. 3, p. 30.

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