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Earthquake Safety at School

Unlike hurricanes and some other natural hazards, earthquakes strike suddenly and without warning. Nevertheless, if your local schools are in a region at risk for earthquakes, there are things that you can do to reduce the chances that those who attend or work in the schools will be injured, that school property will be damaged, or that school functioning will be unduly disrupted by an earthquake. These activities all fall under the concept of preparedness, because to be effective, they must be done before earthquakes occur.

Preparing for earthquakes involves (1) learning what should be done before, during, and after earthquakes; and (2) doing or preparing to do those things now, before the next quake. School preparedness requires the participation of administrators, teachers, students, and parents, as well as those who design, build, regulate, and maintain school buildings.

Before the Next Earthquake

Following are activities that you can undertake now:

Prepare School Facilities

Make your school buildings safer to be in during earthquakes and more resistant to earthquake damage and disruption. Depending on when and how they were designed, built, and furnished, existing school buildings may have weaknesses that make them more vulnerable to earthquakes.

Check with your local building-regulatory agency to find out whether, and for how long, your schools have been subject to building codes containing seismic design provisions. Schools built before adequate provisions came into effect (e.g., mid-rise structures with reinforced concrete frames built before the mid-1970s, buildings with unreinforced masonry walls) may have structural vulnerabilities.

It is also important to know whether and for how long local seismic code provisions have addressed nonstructural building components. Nonstructural items include utility systems and architectural elements (e.g., light fixtures, suspended ceilings, windows, partitions), as well as lockers, shelves, video equipment, computers, and other building contents.

Nonstructural seismic weaknesses can prove particularly dangerous, costly, and disruptive in schools. Any nonstructural items that are not effectively anchored, braced, reinforced, or otherwise secured could become safety hazards or property losses in an earthquake. Design and construction professionals are needed to properly secure some of these components, while others can be made safe by school maintenance staff. It can be educational and empowering for students also to become involved in finding and helping to mitigate nonstructural hazards.

The following FEMA publications describe how to develop earthquake-resistant school facilities:

Prepare Students and Staff to

  • React Safely
    Everyone who attends or works in a school needs to learn What to Do During an Earthquake. Safety training for staff and earthquake curricula for students should emphasize safe places to "drop, cover, and hold on" during earthquake shaking and safe locations where people can rendezvous when the shaking has stopped and it is safe and advisable to evacuate. Periodic earthquake drills should be held to give students and staff opportunities to practice what they have learned and condition themselves to react spontaneously and safely when the first jolt or shaking is felt. Earthquakes should be thoroughly integrated into the school's emergency preparedness, response, and recovery planning.
  • Build Disaster Resilience in the Community
    With their capacity to inform, empower, and motivate the citizens of tomorrow, primary and secondary schools have unique opportunities to broaden popular awareness and understanding of earthquake hazards and of how to reduce the risks that these hazards pose for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. Working in partnership with teachers, emergency managers, scientists, and others, FEMA has developed age-appropriate curricula that can be used by teachers at any grade level to interactively build students' knowledge of earthquakes, seismic safety, and earthquake risk reduction.

    To review these materials, visit Earthquake Publications: Teachers and Kids. Other earthquake and disaster-preparedness information for students, teachers, and parents is available at FEMA for Kids, and from the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program.

Prepare to Shelter Local Citizens

Public school buildings that have been made resistant to earthquakes can be well suited to serve as emergency shelters in the immediate aftermath of earthquakes and other disasters. Their locations are often conveniently situated and widely known within the communities they serve, and they frequently contain gymnasiums or other spaces that can accommodate temporary sheltering requirements for residents displaced from their homes. School sheltering can be implemented more expeditiously when appropriate plans and arrangements are made in advance among school officials, local emergency management authorities, and voluntary relief organizations such as the American Red Cross.

During the Next Earthquake

When earthquake shaking begins, it is time for school students and staff to immediately apply what they have learned about What to Do During an Earthquake. Reacting promptly and safely reduces your chances of being injured.

After the Next Earthquake

Once the shaking stops, schools should be prepared to implement prearranged, earthquake-specific emergency response and recovery plans. Students and staff must keep in mind that aftershocks may strike at any time, exacerbating hazards created by earlier shaking and requiring that everyone again drop, cover, and hold on.

Regardless of the severity of this earthquake, learn from the experience. If there are things that your school could have done better in preparing for this quake, do them better now in preparation for the next earthquake. If structures must be repaired or rebuilt, for example, use this opportunity to correct any weaknesses and ensure full compliance with seismic building standards. If building contents were damaged, improve how such items are secured. If students or staff were insufficiently prepared to react safely, increase safety training and the frequency of drills.

Last Updated: 
12/17/2018 - 10:50