Earthquake Safety

Earthquake Solid State Home Inspections

Vancouver and surrounding area is overdue for a major earthquake event. While building codes over the years have improved to address this risk, there are still many homes that are at risk to earthquake forces. Even the best homes won’t be safe for you and your family if some basic preventive measures, such as securing bookshelves to the walls, are not undertaken. 


Fix Potential Hazards


You need to look for items to secure that:

  •  Are heavy enough to hurt you if it falls on you
  •  Are fragile and/or expensive enough to be a significant loss if it falls


Move furniture such as bookcases away from beds, sofas, or other places where people sit or sleep. Move heavy objects to lower shelves. Here are some other areas in the home you need to make earthquake ready.


Kitchen

  •  Secure cabinet doors so glasses and dishes cannot fly open during earthquakes. Many types of latches are available to prevent this: child proof latches, hook and eye latches, or positive catch latches designed for boats. 
  •  Gas kitchen appliances should have flexible connectors as solid connectors can’t flex in a quake. Broken gas lines are a major fire risk after an earthquake.
  •  Secure your refrigerator and other major appliances to studs in your walls using earthquake appliance straps.


Knick-Knacks on Shelves

Collectibles, pottery, and table lamps can become deadly projectiles. Use hook and loop fasteners or specialty non-damaging adhesives or waxes to hold down loose items. Move heavy items and breakables to lower shelves.


Hanging objects

Framed pictures, mirrors, and other objects can easily fall off the wall during an earthquake. Use hooks which close around picture wire to help prevent pictures from bouncing off of hooks. Only soft items such as tapestries should be placed over beds or places where people sit.


Electronics

Televisions, especially flat panel TV’s on stands, are very susceptible to tipping over due to earthquake forces. In addition to TV’s, you need to think about stereos, computer monitors, and microwaves which are common in our living areas. Use nylon straps to attach these to walls or tables to hold items in place.


Book Shelves and Cabinets

Secure the tops of all top-heavy furniture, such as bookcases and file cabinets, to a wall. Be sure to anchor them to a stud, and not just to the drywall. Flexible fasteners such as nylon straps allow tall objects to sway without falling over, reducing the strain on the studs. Shelves on many bookcases are only loosely set on top of pins in the bookshelf, consider securing these with putty or mechanically (e.g. screws).


In the Garage or Utility Room

Items stored in garages and utility rooms can fall, causing injuries, damage, and hazardous spills or leaks. They can also block access to vehicles and exits. Move flammable or hazardous materials to lower shelves or the floor.


Boilers and Water Heaters

Water heaters and boilers present a double risk in that a tipped over tank not only could scald people with hot water, but also could sever attached gas lines presenting a fire risk. Your tanks should have two straps around it that are screwed into the studs. This illustration shows one method of bracing a water heater. Strapping is available at most home improvement stores.


Disaster Plan

Everyone in your household needs to know what to do during and after an earthquake. Decide with your family who will be responsible for what after an earthquake. 


After an earthquake, there are many risks such as fire, potential lack of utilities, overloaded emergency services, and the certainty of aftershocks. Here are some things to consider:


Plan for What to do During an Earthquake:

  •  Practice "drop, cover, and hold on." (more on this later)
  •  Identify safe spots in every room, such as under sturdy desks and tables.
  •  Learn how to protect yourself no matter where you are when an earthquake strikes.


Plan for What to do After an earthquake:

  •  Have a flashlight near each bed
  •  Ensure you have and know how to use a fire extinguisher
  •  If you are trapped under rubble or debris, call out or whistle for help. If all you can do is make a noise, rescuers will know you need help if you repeatedly tap 3 times followed by a short break. 
  •  If anyone in your household has special needs or medication, have a plan in case you cannot access it.
  •  Learn first aid to help your family and neighbors
  •  Every adult in the home needs to know how to turn off the gas, water, and electricity in an emergency.
  •  Install smoke alarms and test them monthly
  •  Work with your neighbors to identify who has skills and resources that will be useful in an emergency, and who may need special attention (children, elderly, disabled, etc.)


Plan for How to Get Back to Normal after an Earthquake

  •  Select a safe place outside of your home to meet your family after the shaking stops.
  •  Have a designated contact person out of the lower mainland that family can coordinate through (i.e. an Aunt in Edmonton would be a good choice)
  •  Make sure all family members know key contacts that could help them if the family is separated
  •  Make plans for where you can live in the event your home is uninhabitable
  •  Know about the earthquake plan developed by your children's school or day care and how to contact your children after an earthquake
  •  Keep copies of essential documents, such as identification, insurance policies, and financial records, in a secure, waterproof container, and keep with your disaster supplies kits.
  •  Have occasional earthquake "drills" to practice your plan.


Prepare Disaster Kits


Personal Disaster Kit

Everyone should have personal disaster supplies kits. Keep them in places where you spend personal time such as in your home, another in your car, and a third kit at work. Backpacks or other small bags are best for your disaster supplies kits so you can take them with you if you evacuate. Include at least the following items:


  • Medications, prescription list, copies of medical cards, doctor's name and contact information
  • Medical consent forms for dependents
  • First aid kit and handbook
  • Examination gloves (non-latex)
  • Dust mask
  • Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses and cleaning solution
  • Bottled water
  • Whistle (to alert rescuers to your location)
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Emergency cash
  • Road maps List of emergency out-of-area contact phone numbers
  • Snack foods, high in water and calories
  • Working flashlight with extra batteries and light bulbs, or light sticks
  • Personal hygiene supplies
  • Comfort items such as games, crayons, writing materials, teddy bears
  • Toiletries and special provisions you need for yourself and others in your family including elderly, disabled, small children, and animals.
  • Copies of personal identification (drivers license, work ID card, etc.)



Household Disaster Kit

Electrical, water, transportation, and other vital systems can be disrupted for several days or much longer in some places after a large earthquake. Emergency response agencies and hospitals could be overwhelmed and unable to provide you with immediate assistance. Providing first aid and having supplies will save lives and will make life more comfortable after an earthquake.


In addition to your personal disaster supplies kits, store a household disaster supplies kit in an easily accessible location (in a large watertight container that can be easily moved), with a supply of the following items to last at least 3 days and ideally for 2 weeks:


  • Water (minimum one gallon a day for each person)
  • Wrenches to turn off gas and water supplies
  • Work gloves and protective goggles
  • Heavy duty plastic bags for waste, and to serve as tarps, rain ponchos, and other uses
  • Portable radio with extra batteries (or hand crank for charging)
  • Additional flashlights or light sticks Canned and packaged foods
  • Charcoal or gas grill for outdoor cooking and matches if needed
  • Cooking utensils, including a manual can opener
  • Pet food and pet restraints
  • Comfortable, warm clothing including extra socks
  • Blankets or sleeping bags, and perhaps even a tent
  • Copies of vital documents such as insurance policies


Plan to replace perishable items like water, food, medications and batteries on a yearly basis.


A special note about children

If earthquakes scare us because we feel out of control, think how much more true this must be for children, who already must depend on adults for so much of their lives. It is important to tell children why earthquakes occur. Involve them in developing your disaster plan, prepare disaster supplies kits, and practice "drop, cover, and hold on." Consider simulating post-earthquake conditions by going without electricity or tap water.


After the earthquake, remember that children will be under great stress. They may be frightened, their routine will probably be disrupted, and the aftershocks won't let them forget the experience. Adults tend to leave their children in order to deal with the many demands of the emergency, but this can be devastating to children. Extra contact and support from parents in the early days will pay off later. Whenever possible, include them in the recovery process.


Identify Your Home’s Weaknesses


Buildings are designed with gravity in mind pulling downward. Earthquakes create forces which can move upward and laterally putting great strain on building structures. 


Most houses are not as safe as they could be. The following are some common structural problems and how to recognize them. Once you determine if your building has one or more of these problems, seriously consider hiring a contractor to improve them.


Inadequate Connection of Framing to Foundations

House framing needs to be securely attached to the foundation to prevent your home from literally falling off your foundation. Typically, this is done with bolts and nuts or metal straps attaching the wood sills (plates at the bottom of your walls) to the concrete foundations. In fully finished homes, this may not be visible but can sometimes be seen in crawl spaces, garages, or utility rooms. Your Solid State Inspector will try to identify if these are present during an inspection. Ideally, they are no more than 1.8 meters (6 feet) apart in a single story and 1.2 meters (4 feet) apart in a multistory building.


Unbraced Cripple Walls

Homes with a crawl spaces often have short ‘cripple’ walls which support the main structure to the foundation. Plywood added to these walls significantly improves the lateral forces these cripple walls can support. Your Solid State Inspector will attempt to determine if this is present and advise you on any improvements.


Holes in First Story Framing

Look for large openings in the lower floor such as a garage door openings or a hillside house built on stilts. Similar to cripple walls, these areas have less lateral bracing to support the upper stories in an earthquake.


Brick and Masonry

Bricks and masonry are fantastic at withstanding crushing forces such as gravity pulling down on a buildings weight. They are, however, very poor at handling lateral or heaving forces. All masonry structures need re-enforcement to handle earthquake forces. This re-enforcement cannot be determined in a home inspection.


Special Concerns for Condo’s

Condo’s present special earthquake concerns. Underground or tuck-under parking impacts a building’s structural strength. There are also many things on the sides of buildings which may fall off such as bricks, balconies, staircases, and decorations. Talk with your strata to see what earthquake readiness plans they have put into place.


What to do During an Earthquake

The area near the exterior walls of a building is the most dangerous place to be. Windows, facades and architectural details are often the first parts of the building to collapse. To stay away from this danger zone, stay inside if you are inside and outside if you are outside.


If you are: Indoors - Drop, Cover, and Hold on

Drop to the floor, take cover under a sturdy desk or table, and hold on to it firmly. Be prepared to move with it until the shaking stops. If you are not near a desk or table, drop to the floor against the interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms. 


Avoid exterior walls, windows, hanging objects, mirrors, tall furniture, large appliances, and kitchen cabinets with heavy objects or glass. Do not try to go outside while the building is shaking as things may be falling off the outside of the building.


If you are: In bed

Hold on and stay there, protecting your head with a pillow. You are less likely to be injured staying where you are. Be aware of potential broken glass and items on the floor when you get up after the earthquake.


If you are: In a High-Rise

Drop, cover, and hold on. Avoid windows and other hazards. Do not use elevators. Do not be surprised if sprinkler systems or fire alarms go off.


If you are: Outdoors

Stay clear of power lines, trees, signs, buildings, vehicles, and other hazards and try to get to a clear area.


If you are: Driving

Try to pull over in a clear area and set your parking brake. Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, signs and other hazards. Stay inside the vehicle until the shaking is over. If a power line falls on the car, stay inside until a trained person removes the wire.


If you are: In a Stadium or Theater

Stay at your seat and protect your head and neck with your arms. Don't try to leave until the shaking is over. Then walk out slowly watching for anything that could fall in the aftershocks.


If you are: Near the shore

Drop, cover and hold on until the shaking stops. Estimate how long the shaking lasts. If severe shaking lasts 20 seconds or more, immediately evacuate to high ground as a tsunami might have been generated by the earthquake. Move inland 3 kilometers (2 miles) or to land that is at least 30 meters (100 feet) above sea level immediately. Don't wait for officials to issue a warning. Walk quickly, rather than drive, to avoid traffic, debris and other hazards.


If you are: Below a dam

Dams can fail during a major earthquake. Catastrophic failure is unlikely, but if you live downstream from a dam such as in areas of Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, and the North Shore, you should know flood-zone information and have prepared an evacuation plan.


By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.