Lessons from the Great Shakeout

The only accurately predicted earthquake occurred on Oct 20th at 10:20am.  And it happens every year.  It’s the Great Shakeout earthquake drill exercise.  My workplace participates and this year did the full “Drop, Cover, and Hold-On” through evacuation and assembly in a location away from buildings with personnel accounting.  We’ve participated this before, but this was the first since the pandemic and we have partial teleworking now.  Lessons I noted:

  1. No clear leadership in emergency preparedness at my workplace.  I am a volunteer who helps with evacuation communication and personnel accounting for the floor of my office building.  As such, I get a bit more information on the planning for these events.  Months ago, I gently asked questions and made simple suggestions for clarification of assembly areas (many buildings were sent to a very large parking lot).  This was pushed off to individual buildings to address but eventually did get some help the week before the shakeout.
  2. Expectations and scenarios weren’t communicated.  The assembly area for my building is outside an entry gate, but the path that we were told to use was unintuitive and circuitous.  Not one that anyone would take on a normal day.  I had no idea that was the expected path.  It confused everyone.  And then, the plans for what happened after accounting completed were never mentioned in prep, or during execution.  So we know where to go, but then what?  I personally mentioned to my cohort that in the event of a real earthquake, we would be sent home from this assembly area without re-entering any buildings (which must be inspected for safety).  If you don’t have your car keys with you, you’re not driving home.  Overall, I received more questions than I could answer – like if the new parking garage would be inspected early so folks could get to their cars.
  3. The post pandemic teleworking reality has not been addressed.  The processes that are in place were developed when everyone was on-site.  Many people were working from home which creates a new challenge for how to determine if someone is still in a building needing help.
  4. Emergency preparedness is not well funded at my workplace.  It is a large campus-like facility with many buildings and its own security and fire department.  All other support is volunteer, including a Disaster and Rescue Team, Urban Search and Rescue team, and the building and floor accounting volunteers – called Fire Marshalls or Wardens.
  5. I didn’t test my personal earthquake plans like contacting my husband.  He also works where I do, and our assembly areas are not co-located.

Overall, I think this was more of a missed opportunity.  Yes we participated, and some folks will have learned lessons, but clear guidance, goals, and process are lacking and could have been started beforehand to practice.  I’ve not yet heard what outcome the institution reports from it.

Did anyone else participate who is willing to share their experience?


  • Comments (19)

    • 3

      Alicia, thank you for sharing your Great Shakeout experiences. It sounds like you were focused and did well in terms of your role, though overall it sounds like a missed opportunity for your employer. I hadn’t thought of the impact on preparedness by employees working at home.

      What I did for the first time for this year’s Great Shakeout was to send a practice “Did You Feel It?” earthquake report email to the U.S. Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov) using a template message on Winlink Express.

      Winlink is for amateur radio operators. With guidance from an emergency communications group that helps radio operators practice with Winlink, I found the USGS form among the templates and sent my message using Telnet (internet) because I was lazy. I saw how I could have used my laptop computer on battery power to send the message just using radio waves if the internet and/or electric power had been down. I copied the message to the call sign for folks tracking data corresponding to the states in FEMA’s Region 5 (not FEMA itself but the amateur radio emergency communications group that helps operators practice with Winlink). 

    • 2

      Wow, this sounds super valuable, Alicia. I’ve never participated in a Great Shakeout. Thanks to changing jobs and the pandemic, I’ve just never been in a position to organize a drill in my workplace… I would have had to organize it from scratch to make it happen, which is a shame— means I’ve never worked in a place where there is a robust emergency plan. (Not great!) If I were still working at any of my last three jobs, your post would have really helped me make a case for the importance of the drill; it really shows why it’s necessary to practice! I might use these examples at a future workplace.

      I’d also be very interested in hearing about Great Shakeout experiences at workplaces that lack a major physical campus with multiple buildings. I think the need for drills is clearer in those settings, so I’d love to hear any lessons learned from smaller offices/facilities where it might seem deceptively straightforward to get everyone out. I would imagine that just making sure that (1) someone has swept the space and (2) everyone knows to check in in some specific way outside before trying to get home to their families is key. (2) requires having a lead who keeps track of that info and at least one person who can back them up if a real earthquake occurs when they’re out sick.

      • 1

        Thanks, pnwsarah.  One thing I can say is that it’s helpful to have plans and drills at every level (larger facilities probably gets more chaotic).  And practice wherever you are – even just in your head.  The thing about tornados or hurricanes is that you’re typically not out and about in such bad weather.  An earthquake has nothing like that.  Imagine a sizable quake occurs when you’re shopping (grocery store, mall, Home Depot), driving, or at an entertainment venue (stadium, theater, concert).  It has happened:

        • Driving:  Northridge toppled overpasses at 4:30am and a motorcycle policeman drove off it.  It’s difficult to detect the earth moving when you’re also moving.
        • Entertainment Venue: Loma Prieta shook Candlestick park just prior to the start of a World Series baseball game.  

        Your numbered items 2 and 3 are basically it – go to a specified location after the shaking stops and check in, and also check out if you leave (something that hasn’t been communicated well).  We used to do #1, but I think the risk to the Fire Marshall/Warden is considered (or a liability), so we are now told to exit with everyone. From CERT, I know it’s better to train your folks to assess their safety and sweep for stragglers/injured if feasible. Teleworking has really messed with #3.   We need more volunteers/backups since it’s not only out sick, it’s out working.  

      • 1

        Your point about earthquakes sort of makes me think of drills as being on one end of a continuum, with “situational awareness” on the other end. When I moved to the land of megaquakes, I started quizzing myself a lot when I was walking (or running) around town: “Imagine an earthquake hits now— what would you do?” I thought of that as situational awareness, but arguably it’s the closest you can come to a drill for a lot of situations in which an earthquake might actually strike.

        Re: earth moving when you are also moving, my mom was actually landing at SFO when Loma Prieta hit! Then she had to drive her boss home. It was dark by the time she got to SF proper, there were no streetlights, so she took smaller streets and got lost in the Forest Hill/Twin Peaks area, almost ran out of gas and thought she’d have to abandon the car and walk home, which would have been tough in high heels. Definitely some prepping lessons in that experience.

        And I’ll bet teleworking has really made all of this much harder… really making sure that no one is left behind requires knowing who was present in the first place!

    • 3

      Hi Alicia

      thanks for sharing your experiences! 
      Interesting to hear you did use your own personal plan re contacting your husband.

      Although you mentioned that you felt this was a missed opportunity I think you’ve got great feedback there to return on outcome of the exercise

      could the route to the assembly point be way marked to make it clearer if it’s not intuitive?

      Exactly how are you going to try and check-in with people who are working from home? Do you need to? Do you assume those WAH are ok unless you hear otherwise? Or do you assume they’re not until you hear from them given the possible communication issues? 

      Where each building is assembling in the same space could numbered spaces be allocated (or coloured zones). We had something like this at high school each register class had a number

      I also think it is worth asking management to think about what does happen afterwards, like you say if your not allowed back in for your car keys you’re going to want to take them every time you leave your desk – how long are you going to have to wait for the parking lot to be inspected – etc this may have a bearing on what else should be planned for! 

      The point of these exercises is not just to practice but to improve things – if you do submit your feedback it would be interesting to see if things improve for the next practice run!

      • 1

        Hi Sewknot.  Thanks for the vote of confidence. 

        Actually you misread, I did NOT exercise my personal plan. I know in a real earthquake, I’ll be giving first aid, or helping with logistics and communications depending on severity.  My husband and I used to be in the same building so we were in the same region.  This is the first evacuation of any type since I’ve moved buildings.  Our plan is to meet up at his car which we know will be much later.  

        Some of the questions you mention regarding clear signage are the very ones I was asking pre-pandemic, and then weeks ago.   I have to see if they even ask for lessons and feedback. If not, I’ll do my typical and provide it anyway as you say. Being a Fire Marshall/Warden means I know the email distribution list 🙂 

        I say it’s a missed opportunity because they seem to be more reactive and expect to learn from the exercise as you say.  But, we have already some of these same lessons in past Shakeouts since we participate EVERY year at some level, with the full evac/accounting every few years.  It’s not like it’s a surprise when this occurs.  We could have been much more proactive and uncover more meaningful lessons instead of repeating the same ones.  We’ll see if that lesson is learned this time.  

      • 2

        Sometimes with large entities it can feel like such a slog to get any kind of progress can’t it? it’s frustrating! Hopefully if enough people feedback you can make progress at the next event (and hopefully that is also a training scenario!) 

      • 1

        sewnot, I agree but after reporting to management and offering your recommendations, do it yourself.

        It doesn’t matter if you don’t have authority in the company or your unit; after a drill, tell your coworkers you will be there for them and share your ideas.

      • 1


    • 3

      I have not participated in a Great Shakeout but have participated in dozens of drills like you had this year. I worked for the US military in a hospital for 10 years and the military loves to drill. Our evacuation drills were for a hospital fire scenario but applied to all hazards.

      We too had to evacuate to a predetermined location; the northeast corner of the top of our parking garage. The purpose of the drill was always fire evacuation, which is very complicated in a hospital, but many of us were aware the hospital was in Tornado Alley and the roof of a parking garage may not be feasible in all cases.

      The most direct route to our rally point was down a stairway and across an elevated bridge. This was often packed with people from other departements and presented a significant risk. Our Plan B was to evacuate via 2 other staircases. These alternatives were lightly used and got all of us out quickly but we had a longer walk outside to get to the rally point. That was acceptable. LESSON: find out if multiple departments are planning to evacuate via the same route and teach your Plan B as the Primary Plan.

      Headcount at the rally point is not as easy as it seems. Our staff were trained to check in with their immediate supervisor who would then report results to their higher level supervisor. Seems easy enough except for a few problems: 1. you have to know who is on sick leave, annual leave, working from home or is traveling for work. You need cellphone numbers for every employee and a pen/notebook to take headcount. 2. It was common for our staff to be all over the hospital during the day. The hospital evacuation SOP required them to evacuate with the personnel they are with at the time evacuation was ordered. Therefore, their name must be added to the accountability roster for the team they are with. That’s critical. If they can then come to our rally point, great, but if not, text us until we acknowledge. 3. Was anyone left behind? Once an evacuation was ordered, everyone on our team would very quickly check all conference rooms, bathrooms and the data center to be sure all were accounted for and ready to evacuate. Once complete, evacuate. Final responsiblity rested with the supervisor because we knew that in a real disaster some staff may be unable to help and want to get out fast.

      Be prepared for stupid stuff. My team had a guy that was +400 lbs. and had bad knees. He could not easily stand for 30 minutes at the rally point during these drills. I advised our Hospital Safety Officer that once he checked in, I would let him go sit in his vehicle on the lower floor. He denied it and said it was not part of his plan. I was not going to allow my teammate to be humiliated during these drills. I told him to check in, go to your car and monitor our approved radio stations to keep the team informed. This gave him another reason to go to his car.

      Getting out can be harder than you think. About 12 of our offices were on a building perimeter wall and that meant we had windows. But several dozen of the team worked in a large ‘inside’ space with no windows. If power failed immediately they were in the dark until generator power restores ‘life safety’ lighting. I advised everyone to have a flashlight with them. Cellphones don’t count and neither do AAA or AA flashlights. While those small flashlights are useful, they are not as reliable as (2) D industrial flashlights. If the building is damaged (tornado or earthquake) you will need work gloves to exit. Have (2) pair to help someone else.

      I have done significant reading of all the reports about the F5 that hit Joplin Hospital and have learned a lot. In this area though, there’s something yukky; once the building was damaged, much of the suspended ceiling collapsed and had to be moved out of the way to clear escape routes (good work gloves!!!) but the water and drain pipes also broke – leaking #1 and #2 (and worse) into the hallways – this is because most utilities are routed in hallway ceiling space. Hard hats are a good idea for this risk and others.

      I want to go home now. Did you bring your keys? It is critical to have your car keys or a spare set with you at all times at work. There is no alternative. If you have to evacuate from a room on the other side of the building you must have your car keys. No excuse. Figure it out. My key ring has 5 keys, a ResQme and a small AAA flashlight. It’s not tiny but it’s on my belt loop all day long. If you have your keys and you are cleared to leave, be prepared to drive 4-5 keyless coworkers home.

      • 5

        “If the building is damaged (tornado or earthquake) you will need work gloves to exit.”

        Good reminder on the importance of work gloves. I’m adding a pair of cut level 3 gloves to my EDC right now based on your advice.

      • 4

        Work gloves are one of the four under the bed items often referenced in earthquake preparedness. The others are a pair of old sneakers, a flashlight with batteries, and a crow bar. All four go in a bag and you tie the bag to the leg of the bed. If there’s an earthquake at night, the bag won’t travel deeper under the bed with the shaking, and then you have light, something to protect your feet from broken glass, the ability to move debris, and something to pry open the door if the foundation shifts and wedges it shut. I like a plastic garbage bag because you can tear it open— no messing with a knot in the dark. I also like to include a mask, because of dust. We also keep work gloves in an external pocket of each BOB and in both cars. That’s three pairs per person, but hey, I don’t want to move rubble with my bare hands!

      • 1

        There sure will be enough people around you who would benefit from any additional pairs of gloves you could spare. 
        “Hey, I’ll give you this pair of gloves if you help me lift this board so I can get to my water.”

      • 3

        pnwsarah, your idea is great and I hadn’t thought of some self-rescue gear near my bed. I keep my BoB in the closet by the front door (rolling suitcase). I keep my system bag (a North Face 20L?) by my bed with laptop, cables, external drives, headlamp, flashlight, some tools, water and firearm) but will add gloves and especially a 24″ wrecking bar from the garage. I already keep my boots by the bed – I lay them flat so nothing can fall into them.

      • 2

        Shaun, reading this called up images from Five Days at Memorial. Sounds like a huge evacuation challenge. I like your tough talk on keys, too. (In my last job, I wore my keys on a neck lanyard with my card key. I looked like a undergrad and I jangled a lot, but it was worth it to me.) And it’s really great that you found a role for your colleague who would have struggled and faced humiliation if he’d just had to stand there. Sometimes, “No excuse. Figure it out,” is exactly the right attitude; other times it’s just cruel. Sounds like you know the difference, which probably makes you a really good person to work with/for. Thanks for the detailed info.

      • 2

        Five Days at Memorial is a great movie. If it’s accurate, then that hospital was very unprepared. Hospitals move patients to interior areas or hallways when tornadoes/hurricanes are on the ground. Our hospital had special features to prevent windows from breaking during hurricanes or tornadoes but we moved patients anyway. I keep (3) car keys with me. My real set, one in my left pocket and one in my 3-season hooded shell. Most administrative staff can keep keys on their belt, pockets or on a lanyard. Clinical staff are more creative. I have seen several nurses use a keyring on a low-key kubotan slid into the waist of their scrubs. I assume they are martial arts trained.

        Thank you for the kind words. I think 90% of teamwork is practicing the golden rule with teammates.

      • 1

        Shaun, Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’ve had some similar ones. We have the same guidance to evacuate for the location you’re IN creating the same headcount challenges. But also, cell phones won’t work during an earthquake – they get overwhelmed because everyone is calling and in my experience,  that was well before landlines were given up for cell phones. After I took attendance for those present, I started asking everyone for knowledge of those not present – were they on-site or not today. That got our numbers to about 50% of the total floor occupancy. We have to improve this. I think we’ll need to revert to checking the floor before exiting if it’s safe to do so.

        You reminded me that dropped ceiling panels and the HVAC vent cover fell in our work offices during a quake in the 90s and it was “only” a magnitude 5.6. Someone suffered some bruises from the HVAC vent cover. Broken drain pipes would be especially not fun.

        One thing that we didn’t practice well was that it may or may not be so simple to exit the building. Your point of having gloves easily accessible is a good one. I’ve got them in the top of the ‘go’ backpack, but will move them to the exterior. Most folks exited like it was a fire – get out fast and leave your stuff. The fact that a local building evacuation is different than a site-wide event that could have created safety risks for exiting and even walking by other buildings needs to be crisply, consistently and repeatedly communicated for folks to retain it. They reverted to fire drill behavior.

        Edited – the html tags removed.  And the hardline on keys. I learned several shakeouts ago to ensure I can drive home from wherever I am at work – why I brought it up with colleagues during the drill. I am in different buildings and may not be near my office when it hits. This means having a key with my badge which I am required to wear at all times.  And for the drill, I need the badge to get back into the building.  It works both ways!  🙂  

    • 2

      Accountability in a drill or real disaster is critical. This is true for your family as well as coworkers. Our hospital took accountability very, very seriously. A lot of that was military culture but it was also a universal leadership tenant – you are responsible for the health and welfare of your teammates. Failure to account for everyone can lead to wasted time and resources looking for someone to the neglect and death of someone you forgot about. Division supervisors had to provide 100% accountability by 9am every day or 90 minutes after the beginning of 2nd/3rd shift. Failure would result in repeated calls from our Operations Chief’s staff until you reached 100%. If you could not account for someone and their emergency contact was not responding, our Operations unit would call local police to do a welfare check. We do not check staff on vacation every day, but we do check employees on sick days and everyone working remotely. This is how we found 2 employees that died during the night (of natural causes) and lived alone. Both had emergency contacts out of state.

      Part of accountability is sharing your cellphone number with the team. We had 99% of the team do this, except one woman, a high performer and go-to person. She had been a victim of stalking in the past and did not want her number on the roster. We talked it over and told her accountability is a line of defense for stalking too. We compromised and she gave her number to 2 supervisors.

      It doesn’t matter if your company doesn’t do this. My current employer does not account for staff at all. You can do it informally in your unit. You will not regret it and it may safe a life someday.

      • 2

        Oh, I know accountability and the wasted resources and potential consequences.  When I was a supervisor, we followed up with persons who didn’t show or call off on normal days.  When typical contact means didn’t reach them, we also knew who had access to their private contact information.  Unfortunately, like you, we did discover a few folks had left us.  The issue during an earthquake is that cell phones will be overwhelmed or the towers will be out.  So having the cell phone numbers (which I do mostly because work provides the phones) won’t really help.  We need a process that works without cells that also works at scale.  The new building is 4x larger and we have fewer marshalls/wardens.  Add in telework and we have a recipe for a lot of incomplete accounting.  One floor didn’t have a marshall/warden to report to.   Depending on what is defined as ‘my unit’ it becomes untenable rather quickly – why my first point was the need better leadership.