On the duck-cover-hold advice

I’m not a fan of the ‘duck-cover-hold’ safety advisory.  It’s a recipe for yet another disaster i.e. people getting trapped inside buildings, pinned by building debris, death.  I’ve communicated this, when I was in development work, to colleagues and partners in the DRR network.  I told colleagues that I don’t want to be responsible for, say, deaths of school children, who are the target of our awareness campaigns, as a result of the traditional duck-cover-hold advice.  My argument comes from experience and common sense.

The primary cause of death in an earthquake is getting trapped inside crumbling buildings and pinned or hit by falling debris. The duck-cover-hold tip is only feasible when the thing one is ducking under is made of extraordinary stuff that could withstand the weight of cement and steel falling.  Ducking under a table that is made of wood, with a used life of 20 years, is a sure means to death.  Moreover, shaking during an earthquake may last either a short time or longer, and that the strongest intensity could be felt during the initial shaking so that there’s no telling if the entire building will fall on you in that time. Things happen split seconds apart.

During the 1990 earthquake in Baguio City, I witnessed students of then Baguio Colleges Foundation (now University of the Cordilleras) flying out of windows, screaming like crazed ants, onto the street (Harrison) to their deaths.  The tables (things they should supposedly duck under) couldn’t protect them from huge chunks of falling cement nor the doors allow all of them out at once.  So it was the devil or the deep blue sea.  A tragic story as the nation now knows because their end, either way, was to kingdom come.

Therefore people should instead be advised to be attentive first and foremost, and next, know the exit ways of their buildings.  This is to say buildings should have these exit ways (note that this is in the plural.  Exits should be in proportion to the number of people inside a building and that these should be of proportionate width.  In other words, Local Government Units must enforce the national building code which on one hand is due for review.).

Building administrators, working with unit owners and lessees, should design an integrated emergency strategy and plan which must be drilled into individuals’ heads such that they know and take the plan to heart and are prepared to execute it any time, the rationale for the regularity of drills.  I take drills seriously.  When the alarm goes off in the buildings I’ve worked in before, I get up at once with the evacuation plan retrieved from memory and clear in my mind (except once when I was working on a report due that day and was among the last to leave the building).  It was noticeable that most people treat drills as a joke, whether in the workplace or in schools among students.  As I said experience tells me it isn’t a laughing matter at all.  Besides, there is always a new challenge cropping up in each drill.

Where is the nearest safe open area?  This is why in urban planning it’s important to integrate open areas downtown to serve this purpose among others.  The area should be identified with the evacuation plan directing people toward it.

Given this objective of building evacuation, it follows that emergency supplies should be stored in a secure place outside the building where these can be retrieved once evacuees get back their bearings.  This should be planned for as well.

Bottomline, agencies and the media should stop advising the general public to stay put (duck-cover-hold) at the onset of an earthquake.  It’s a fool’s advice.

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