September 30, 2018

As a veteran firefighter/paramedic, I am accustomed to being woken up in the early morning for all types of emergencies. Nothing in my career, however, had prepared me for the morning of January 17, 1994. At 4:30 a.m., a magnitude 6.7 earthquake hit the Los Angeles area. With the epicenter located in the northern San Fernando Valley, the shaking lasted 20 seconds. When it was all over, there were 57 dead, 8,700 injured, and 50 billion dollars in property loss and damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

On that morning I was fortunate to be at home, but was still close enough to be shaken out of bed and witness the nearby devastation. After things had settled, I had to make the gut-wrenching choice of either reporting to work or staying home to care for my loved ones. I chose to secure my family’s safety with nearby relatives and then proceed to the station. The typical 40-minute drive took me nearly two hours of dodging the destruction that blocked my path.

When all of the crew finally arrived at the station, we had one of the busiest days of my career. Instead of individual dispatches, OCD (MFC) would give us a dozen at a time. Engine 84 alone, handled a chemical spill at Tarzana Hospital that would normally have been a Major Emergency, and when the electrical gird came back on line, a number of structure fires. At about midnight, we stumbled on a large fire at the Catalina Yacht manufacturing plant where we spent the rest of the night.

Fast forward 23 years, where we find that more than half of the department’s current members were either in elementary school or not yet born and, for the most part, have no idea what it is like to be in a major earthquake. They may also not know what it’s like to leave their loved ones at home after a disaster, or even worse, being on duty at the time of an earthquake and not knowing if their own families are safe.

The point is, we can’t control where we will be when the next big quake hits, and, yes, experts agree it is coming—it’s just a matter of time. However, we can make sure our families will be ready when it does occur, whether we are at home or not. The following is a list of actions and recommendations we suggest you follow and a checklist of supplies we believe you should gather before the next natural disaster hits.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

1. Talk about earthquakes with your family so that everyone knows what to do in case of an earthquake. Discussing the subject ahead of time helps reduce fear, particularly for younger children.
2. Check your children’s schools and day care centers to learn about their earthquake emergency plans.
3. Pick safe places in each room of your home. A safe place could be under a piece of furniture or against an interior wall away from windows, bookcases, or tall furniture that could fall on you.
4. Practice DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON in each safe place.
5. Keep a flashlight and low-heeled shoes by each person’s bed.

Various products and kits offered by the Earthquake Supply Center in San Rafael, California.

Staying Safe Indoors

2. Move as little as possible – most injuries during earthquakes occur because of people moving around.
3. Try to protect your head and torso.
4. If you are in bed, stay there, curl up and hold on, and cover your head. Beforehand though, assure you place nothing above the bed that can fall and strike an individual in that bed.
5. Stay indoors until the shaking stops and you are sure it is safe to exit.
6. Be aware that smoke alarms and sprinkler systems frequently go off in buildings during an earthquake, even if there is no fire.
7. If you smell gas, get out of the house and move as far away as possible, but also educate everyone where the gas meter is and how to turn off the gas if needed.
8. Before you leave any building check to make sure that there is no debris from the building that could fall on you.

Staying Safe Outdoors

1. Find a clear spot and drop to the ground. Stay there until the shaking stops.
2. Try to get as far away from buildings, power lines, trees, and streetlights as possible.
3. If you’re in a vehicle, pull over to a clear location and stop. Avoid bridges, overpasses, and power lines.
4. Stay inside with your seatbelt fastened until the shaking stops.
5. After the shaking has stopped, drive on carefully, avoiding bridges and ramps that may have been damaged.
6. If a power line falls on your vehicle, do not get out. Wait for assistance.

Staying Safe After an Earthquake

If you do nothing else:
1. If away from home, return only when authorities say it is safe to do so.
2. After an earthquake, the disaster may continue. Expect and prepare for potential aftershocks, landslides or even a tsunami if you live on a coast.
3. Each time you feel an aftershock, DROP, COVER and HOLD ON. Aftershocks frequently occur minutes, days, weeks and even months following an earthquake.
4. Look for and extinguish small fires. Fire is the most common hazard after an earthquake.

Stock up now on emergency supplies that can be used after an earthquake. These supplies should include a first aid kit, survival kits for the home, automobile, and workplace, and emergency water and food. Store enough supplies to last at least three days.

One last thing. Every firefighter should think about putting together a Survival Kit for themselves and keep it at work. It should contain the same items as if you were home, because if you are at the station at the time of an earthquake, most likely you aren’t leaving anytime soon. During the 1994 earthquake, fire companies were left without food, electricity or water, just like at home. So, take care of yourself to assure you can take care of others.

Source material: National Red Cross Website

By John Hicks

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