The Problem with FEMA’s “Duck, Cover, and Hold” Advice for Earthquakes

Image Source
Image Source

Not long ago my wife started asking me about earthquakes, what we should do, how to survive one, and so on, I assume because we’re now living in “earthquake country” in the Pacific Northwest.

I was a bit surprised because normally she’s not that interested in prepping but always goes along with my “crazy” plans. So, I started to tell her what I knew from my childhood–I grew up in California–as well as some of my experiences.

Fortunately, we never had to survive anything where the walls were crumbling down upon us but we did have a few that shook stuff off the walls and made walking a real challenge. As a kid it was more exciting than scary.

In fact, I remember the San Francisco Bay Area (Loma Prieta) earthquake that happened to interrupt the 1989 World Series between my favorite team, the Oakland Athletics, and their cross-town rivals, the San Francisco Giants. That was also the first time I really paid attention to the devastation caused by an earthquake because of the double-decker bridge that collapsed and trapped people for weeks.

Personally, I’d much rather continue to dodge tornadoes in the Midwest because at least I feel like I can see them coming… earthquakes, not so much. 😉

FEMA Recommendations

If you’re unaware, the recommendation from both FEMA and the Red Cross (I believe) for earthquake safety is to “Duck, Cover, and Hold.” Specifically, get down to the floor ASAP, find something sturdy to cower–I meant take cover–under, and hold on for dear life.

The critical part is to get as low as possible and UNDER something sturdy to protect yourself, particularly your head, from falling or shifting objects, furniture, stuff coming off of walls, etc.

The “Triangle of Life” Alternative

FEMA’s strategy is in opposition to the “triangle of life” popularized by Doug Copp. Mr. Copp purports that you’re far more likely to survive a major structural collapse using his method than the traditional duck and cover method.

His “triangle of life” method states that instead of hiding underneath a sturdy object you should hide next to and between solid objects with the idea being that the area next to or between such objects creates a natural void where you can survive.

You can read more about the “triangle of lie” method here if you like as well as the arguments against it.

The Main Argument Against the “Triangle of Life”

Suffice it to say, the major argument is that in countries such as the United States where modern building techniques and standards are used a person is far more likely to die as a result of being hit by a falling (or moving) object rather than an entire building collapse. In countries where such standards aren’t employed a person if more likely to be crushed by the weight of the structure.

With me so far? Good.

The question boils down to where you expect to be safest: underneath something sturdy or next to something sturdy?

Why the Question Doesn’t Actually Matter

I say the entire question is moot for one reason that most people may not have thought of: what’s the likelihood that you’ll be nearby that “something sturdy” during an earthquake? More importantly, how many sturdy objects do you actually have in your home?

For example, I’m sitting in my living room writing this post. My butt is planted on a couch that I can’t get under. My legs are propped on a coffee table that may offer a little protection and, to be honest, I doubt it’s that sturdy. I’m starring at a television that’s perched upon a glass entertainment center… that’s certainly not safe to try and hide under!

The bedroom may actually be worse. There’s a bed that I couldn’t fit under, two end tables that offer no protection, a funny piece of furniture my wife likes to display photos on that you can’t get under anyway,, and two fairly crappy bookshelves that will offer no protection.

Our kitchen is of no help as there’s an island that I can’t fit under or even inside. Perhaps the only saving grace is our dining room table as it’s likely the MOST sturdy object in the house. The other bedrooms have similar dilemmas.

See my point? There’s isn’t really ANYTHING to take cover under!

The Trends Don’t Help… and Neither Do Your Assumptions

Maybe your furniture is much different than mine but with the ever-growing trend to make everything cheaper, lighter, and disposable… even furniture isn’t going to offer much protection, in my opinion. Perhaps fifty years ago when stuff was still made to be quality and expected to last a lifetime, but not any longer.

Now, you might be thinking, so what if most of my furniture is crap, I always have that [fill in the blank] I can go hide under. Good luck with that. For anybody that’s experienced even a relatively significant earthquake you can attest that it’s nearly impossible to keep one’s balance and walk anywhere; most people are lucky to stay standing as it is… I can only imagine being at the epicenter of a truly big one.

Beyond that, by the time you realize that an earthquake is upon you–and assuming it’s the “big one”–I’d imagine that you’d consider yourself fortunate to set down your beverage of choice, toss the bag of Doritos to the side, and do a bellyflop between the couch and coffee table… oh, wait… that’s me. 🙂

What say you? This is an interesting subject and one that I have’t had to ponder in about 20 years. Your thoughts are welcome.

Author: Damian Brindle

How To Effortlessly Get Prepared For Emergencies Of All Kinds In Only 5 Minutes A Day... Fast, Easy, And Inexpensively... In Less Than ONE Single Month... By Following An Expert In The Field: Discover My 5 Minute Survival Blueprint And Get Prepared Today.

13 thoughts on “The Problem with FEMA’s “Duck, Cover, and Hold” Advice for Earthquakes”

  1. Additional note: I think what folks ultimately need to decide is what would be the best response for them, in whatever part of a building or home someone is in during an earthquake. This will depend largely on the age and construction of the building. Obviously, newer building presumably have the better earthquake code construction, and some older office buildings have been retrofitted to incorporate modifications, such as “X” infill shear trusses (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seismic_retrofit), for internal and external wall surfaces. But, too often, the expense to retrofit if cost prohibitive and not done. 100+ year old plaster and lath homes can literally collapse like a house of cards with side-to-side motion, and they often have brick chimneys that are dangerous to not only your own home, but to your neighbors as well, depending the direction they fall. The Vallejo, CA 2014 quake was an example of that issue, including the house where I used to live! My 101 year-old house had not one, but TWO, 25+ foot chimneys with cracks and shifting bricks. There are often too many factors to consider: depth of the quake, intensity, duration and the strata involved, and no way to predict how an area will react to any given quake scenario. A great deal of how someone will survive is often left to an awareness of surroundings, forethought and some level of planning, plus “shear dumb luck”.

    1. Retrofitting would probably help in some cases but you’re right that much of it is too expensive for most people to be willing to even consider. Perhaps “The Big One” will change minds?

  2. Damian: I am a believer of Doug Copp’s advice. I, too, experienced Loma Prieta, and backed myself and another person into separate door frames, only to realize it probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was something to do at the time! My concern (fear) was realized when I saw a picture from the Northridge that I think has now been deleted (can’t find it anymore). It was the bedroom of the apartment building that was so badly damaged, with ceiling/roof debris lying on the bed, and sticking out from underneath the debris was the leg of a young woman in blue and white polka dot pajamas. You know she was dead. Now, granted, some folks, like my husband, sleep through anything, including earthquakes, so some will wake up to get out of bed, much less d/c/h. But, that’s when I realized rolling off the bed and letting the bed protect me was the wiser idea. I may still be hit by debris, but creating a space between the bed and my dresser is still the better scenario.

    1. Hi Lucy. I understand why experts say that the “drop, cover, and hold” method is superior for modern construction but there just aren’t many places in a home a person can honestly do that. When I think of all the homes I’ve been in (of friends and family) besides perhaps a sturdy dining table I can’t think of anything else that would actually be big enough for a typical adult to fit under as well as sturdy enough to actually protect a person. Ultimately, I think most of us would be relying on the “triangle of life” method whether we want to or not!

  3. While I appreciate differing opinions, I am appalled that someone hasn’t done their homework on the crackpot and the so called Triange of Life – we refer to it as the Triangle of Death. Please reserach this and find credible sources of information before you post articles like this for unsuspecting people. By the way, it is not Duck, Cover and Hold. It is Drop, Cover and Hold and most of say, Hold On. Thanks.

    1. Cindy, thanks for clarifying that it’s “drop, cover, and hold” not “duck, cover, and hold.” Anyway, I don’t recall stating that the Triangle of Life option was the better one whatsoever; I was merely pointing it out as the alternative.

      More importantly, I was stating the FEMA’s suggestions which rely heavily on finding something sturdy to get under may no longer be so useful because, like I said, there isn’t much that people can either get under to start with (like a couch or bed) or that would provide worthy protection for you from much of anything falling. Of course, that’s just how I see it. If, on the other hand, somebody feels that hiding under a shabby Ikea desk is the better option then so be it. I don’t.

      Again, this all boils down to WHAT is falling. If it’s some dishes or a ceiling fan then perhaps most anything to cover under is better than not. My thoughts were on the “what if the entire house collapses” scenario. If that’s the case then I don’t see much of anything providing adequate protection besides, perhaps, hunkering down next to a load-bearing wall like another commenter suggested. Even then that might be difficult to do because it’s (1) darn hard to move when things really get shaking and (2) often load-bearing walls have things like furniture and whatnot butted-up against them which would therefore make them difficult to get directly next to.

      Ultimately, I don’t have THE answer. Perhaps the “triangle of life” guy is completely off his rocker. I don’t know. I didn’t research him or the theory much. Even if his research or claims are faulty that doesn’t mean the idea is totally worthless either in some situations. Regardless, I’m not interested in defending something I don’t know much about. I am interested in questioning (and having YOU question) how valid the recommendations are for “drop, cover, and hold.”

  4. I’ve lived in California all my life, and slept through many an earthquake. That’s right, slept. Most major shakes happen at times most of us are sleeping. If that’s the case, stay in bed. Provided you didn’t put your bed under a window, or a mirror over your bed, your probably safe. If you’re in a public building, crawl to a wall, preferably a load bearing wall, and hug it. And I say crawl, because almost all earthquake injuries happen when people try to run. Do not under any circumstances go to the kitchen to get under your sturdy table. Cupboards open, breakables fall out. In 1971, my father ran into the kitchen to get to my screaming mother. He was wearing heavy soled shoes. We were picking glass and ceramic shards from his feet for years. Earthquakes are like nature’s own rollercoaster… It gets bumpy and loud for a short time, then you stand in line for the next one.

    1. I’m sure I’ve slept through quite a few myself as a kid growing up in California. Truth is that even relatively significant earthquakes aren’t going to do much damage and it certainly depends on where the epicenter was located in reference to you. As for your father, I know the advice is to NEVER walk barefoot for this very reason but I would have never imagined it would have been years picking out glass! That had to have been horrible.

  5. The problem FarmerDave is two points. One: it is difficult to walk while the earth moves under you. Most quakes don’t last longer than one min. ***hint: if you live in the NorthWest and the ground quakes for three to four minutes!! Sorry to tell you that you’re living through the cascadia Subduction zone earthquake.

    Two: Most injuries or death occur from failing objects. I know, what about all those people running outside. Most likely, they live in third world countries and they know the building are going to fall on their head:(

    P.S: I can not stand the “triangle of life” theory. I view that guy as a piss poor excuse of a scientist.

    P.S.S: Damian I love all the hard work you put into your blog. I wish you the best 🙂

    1. For anybody that has lived through any decently-sized earthquake you’re spot on: one simply cannot just walk out the door. Like I said, you’d be lucky to stand up properly when the ground is really shaking. 😉 Anyway, I hear you about the “triangle of life” guy; I’ve never tried to deeply research his idea. That said, as I point out in my post, I can’t back FEMA’s recommendations either… not these days. I truly don’t know what the best course of action is for most people.

  6. Unless you live in a high-rise and can’t get out, how about just walking outside away from anything that might fall on you.

    1. Going outside might work if you’re in an area with no trees or buildings other than the one you just came out of — but I wouldn’t go outside in a town/city (falling bricks/masonry/glass from buildings, falling power lines, etc), or if you have trees near the building you’re in (even a small tree coming down can be incredibly destructive, speaking as a person who’s lived through many Pacific NW windstorms as well as earthquakes). Also, any earthquake in a city is going to mean immense amounts of broken glass falling in the streets during a quake (hitting & injuring people as it comes down, possibly fatally), and all over the ground afterward.

      1. Good thoughts as to why one shouldn’t try to get outside. I was simply looking at it as a near impossibility (to walk) when things really get to shaking. Of course, the first thing everybody does is to go outside when things have stopped rumbling… let’s hope everything has stopped falling by then as well. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *