Case 00-1: Presentation on Earthquake Risk

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between February and April 2000. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

Ronda Response is on the staff of a local office of emergency services. The jurisdiction encompasses a region of moderate seismic hazard, and therefore earthquake planning and response are an important part of the office.

One of Ms. Response’s key jobs is to make presentations on earthquake risk to day care centers, schools, and other similar facilities in the community. The presentations, which are a free service provided by the emergency services office, are generally tailored to the staff and faculty. They often include the probability of earthquakes, how earthquakes affect different kinds of buildings, and the kinds of steps that need to be taken in developing preparedness programs and emergency plans.

Upon arriving at a private school to make a presentation, Ms. Response realizes that the building in which she is meeting is an older, poorly constructed unreinforced masonry building. Although she is not a practicing structural engineer, she knows that such building types, if not properly strengthened, can pose serious hazards. In addition, she notes conditions (deteriorated mortar, an open front at an entrance atrium area, tall story heights, and several reentrant corners) that she thinks could be associated with below average performance.

The school administrators have requested that the presentation address preparedness issues (bracing bookshelves, storing emergency supplies, etc.), emergency contact numbers, names other organizations that can serve as resources, as well as talking to the staff about what students should do during an earthquake. There is to be no discussion of the expected performance of the school buildings.

However, during the presentation a staff member asks Ms. Response how she would expect the building to perform. This arouses the interest of many of the staff members, who are naturally curious about the building in which they spend much of their day.

What should Ms. Response do? (It should be noted that the local jurisdiction does not have any mandatory evaluation or strengthening provisions for unreinforced masonry buildings regardless of use.)

Response Summary:

The general tone of the response was that Ms. Response should notify the school administrators of the potential risk, but should be careful not to arouse undue panic with the staff. Since she is not professionally qualified to make an engineering evaluation of the building, she should recommend that one be made by experts. The appropriate avenue for this recommendation is with the administration, since they are ultimately responsible for the building.

At the same time, some readers felt that the building occupants (staff and students) should be made aware that there are potential hazards associated with that building type. However, when stating the risks, Ms. Response should be clear to note that she is not an “expert” and that a more detailed evaluation is recommended. Specific claims regarding the building are not warranted without an assessment by a qualified professional, but the occupants should be informed of the hazards in general.

Recommended Actions:

Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.

5 — Strongly Agree
4 — Agree

3 — Neutral

2 — Disagree

1 — Strongly Disagree

  1. Talk about the performance of unreinforced masonry buildings in general, taking great care to soften the discussion of potential hazards, and do nothing else.
    Average Rating: 2.0
    (min: 1,max: 4)

  2. Talk about the performance of unreinforced masonry buildings in general, discussing quite realistically the types of hazards associated with typical building, and do nothing else.
    Average Rating: 2.4
    (min: 1,max: 5)

  3. Talk about the performance of unreinforced masonry buildings in general. Later, in a closed meeting with the building administrators, inform them that the building could be particularly vulnerable and recommend that a structural evaluation be undertaken.
    Average Rating: 4.4
    (min: 1,max: 5)

  4. After discussing unreinforced masonry buildings in general, inform the staff that, in her opinion, the building is more vulnerable than the typical unreinforced masonry building. Recommend that they pressure the school administrators for a structural evaluation.
    Average Rating: 3.1
    (min: 1,max: 5)

  5. Same as Action d), but provide more information that implies the nature of the hazard. For example, point out the areas of egress that may be most reliable and areas of the building to avoid, if possible.
    Average Rating: 2.8
    (min: 1,max: 5)

  6. Same as Action d), but also suggest the staff relay this information to the parents of the children attending the school.
    Average Rating: 2.3
    (min: 1,max: 5)

  7. Discuss performance in general, without providing much detail, and contact the local building official for advice.
    Average Rating: 3.2
    (min: 1,max: 5)

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing (in no particular order) of relevant information that would have assisted in making a better decision:

  1. Details on the building’s design and construction and more information on the seismic hazard (expected magnitude and frequency of earthquakes).
  2. Details of Ms. Response’s background (education, engineering experience, etc.) and qualifications for making such judgments.
  3. Openness of the school administration to improving public safety. Relationships between the various stakeholders (teachers, administrators, staff, parents) and how well would they work together to improve the safety of the building.
  4. To what extent, if any, do public employees in this jurisdiction have a legal/contractual duty to report hazards.

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the Ms. Response. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.

A majority of the respondents suggested that Ms. Response should be careful not to cause premature panic, should contact the school administrators first, and should recommend a more detailed evaluation of the building by a building official or a structural engineer prior to making any comments regarding the particular building.

In general, these responses noted that Ms. Response does have an obligation to point out the potential hazards, but since she is not a professional structural engineer, she should refrain from making specific statements about the building. Many readers were very clear about this last point.

Some seemed to feel that, regardless of the specific degree of hazard, the building occupants have a right to know about the risks in general. Ms. Response should discuss this or at least ensure that the school administrators would discuss the risk with the staff and parents.

However, others felt that the risks should not be discussed with the staff and parents until more information was available. This group seemed to think that the building administrators should be given the first chance to respond to the situation.

Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following two questions:

Do you think occupants have a right to know about the safety of their buildings? Do “experts” have an obligation to discuss these issues?

Everyone who responded to this question agreed that yes, occupants do have a right to know. Some did not comment on the second part, but many felt that the experts do have some sort of obligation. Several people clarified their answers, stating that the experts should use care to use appropriate judgment when disclosing risks or that the disclosure should be made first to building owners rather than occupants.

Five years after the initial presentation Ms. Response knows that the school has done nothing to improve its building. Does she have any further official obligations? If so, then what are they?

A majority of readers agreed that Ms. Response should take action, including making reports to the building administrators and building department and attempting to validate the structural concerns. Several respondents noted that 5 years is too long for her to wait before taking further action.

A few respondents felt that, while she does not have an official obligation at this point, she should do her best to pursue action out of personal responsibility.

A small number stated that she has no further obligations.