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Earthquake Preparedness for Facility Managers

If you are in an earthquake-prone area, consider creating an emergency plan that includes damage prevention measures and a well-practiced response procedure. 

Therman Campbell, a facility manager for the U.S. Department of State, was sleeping in his eighth-floor apartment in Santiago, Chile, when he was awoken by earthquake tremors. For about three minutes Campbell’s building shook, as the tremors increased in intensity from gentle vibrations to those that sounded like a freight train. Books and paintings fell off shelves and walls, as bottles of wine and olive oil shattered in his home. “It was an intense experience,” Campbell says. By the time it stopped, the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Santiago on February 27, 2010, had moved the entire city 11 inches west.

At the United States Embassy in Santiago, where Campbell worked, there was no structural damage, says Christine Foushee, director of external affairs at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. But there was some property damage. The building’s sprinkler pipes, which had been installed 18 years earlier using chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) pipe, couldn’t flex during the tremors and had cracked. In addition to water and pipe damage, a heavy steel door had severely cracked a concrete masonry wall.

Create an Earthquake Preparedness List

While many facility managers may never have to worry about such a massive earthquake, preparing for an earthquake is necessary if the facility is located in a seismically active area, Campbell says. This includes the West coast of the United States, some regions of the East coast and in the Midwest where Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee converge.

If you are in an earthquake-prone area, consider creating an emergency plan that includes damage prevention measures and a well-practiced response procedure.

Earthquake Damage Prevention Measures

To prepare for potential earthquake damage, start with retrofitting and reinforcing fixtures. Retrofits can range from bracing fixtures to adding structural support, which is a much longer and more complicated process, says Robert Charbonneau, emergency services coordinator for the University of California. One important preventive measure is retrofitting gas lines, which could rupture or leak, and spark fires. Lewis Byrd, a facility manager at the U.S. Department of State recommends retrofitting gas lines with seismic valves that automatically shut off the gas during a seismic event.

If a building is poorly rated or isn’t structurally up to current seismic and building codes, which vary by state and facility type (e.g., hospitals have their own regulations), structural engineering solutions may make sense for your facility. These solutions involve working with an external engineering team to add additional steel or concrete to vulnerable areas. On the downside, this solution can cost millions of dollars and take years to complete. A cost-benefit analysis should be done to see if retrofitting these buildings to improve their seismic performance makes sense, Charbonneau says.

In addition, consider that the majority of injuries that happen in an earthquake are caused by falling object — not a building collapsing, Charbonneau says. “That’s what you see in movies,” Charbonneau adds. “Those kinds of injuries are by far the exceptions to the rule. Most people are injured when objects fall or tip over.”

It’s important to brace freestanding structures to prevent injury. Bolting down objects over six feet tall, bookshelves, partitions, shelving racks and cabinets, and moving heavy objects to lower shelves can help prevent injury, Charbonneau says. Campbell also recommends sufficiently bracing attached, non-structural elements and elevated equipment, including water heaters, water or sprinkler lines, suspended light fixtures, ceiling grids and fan coil units.

Train First Responders, Have A Back-Up Plan

Retrofits and reinforcements can go a long way toward preventing damage. But in the event of an emergency, safety comes down to a well-practiced, well-executed plan, Byrd says. The facility’s occupants must be aware of the plan, and staff should attend training sessions, Byrd says. For example, the Department of State hold crisis management training every two to three years, covering everything from earthquakes to flooding disasters.

Charbonneau also recommends designating a group of first responders. A trained floor warden or fire brigade program can also help ensure people have emergency supplies and equipment, Charbonneau says. That facilities team is typically trained in basic first aid, fire suppression, evacuation and light search-and-rescue techniques. They should have a set of battery-powered radios on hand and a cache of water, as well as an emergency response kit. The kit can include hard hats, goggles, gloves, knee pads, dust masks, duct tape, flashlights or light sticks, as well as basic hand tools. Charbonneau says his team has prying and lifting equipment, wooden cribbing and sledge handles so they can rescue their employees if necessary. He also distributes personal preparedness kits to individual workers, which include supplies for three days.

An emergency response plan should describe how to establish contact with emergency medical services in case of a power outage or if phone lines go down. A chosen fallback location should also be in place if the main facility is untenable to secure longer-term power and fuel supplies.

Keep Perspective

Although several members of an organization may share the responsibility for earthquake preparedness, facility managers are essential to planning for an emergency and retrofitting their facilities.

Using these preventative measures and a well-executed response plan will minimize damage and ensure your facility’s ability to be self-reliant in a catastrophic earthquake. “It’s the responsibility of the facility manager,” Campbell says, “to make sure you have the supplies and equipment you need to take care of the people in your building.”


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