Case 01-1: Post Earthquake Evaluation Requests

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between July and October 2001. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

A moderate earthquake has hit Urbanville, a city in a region with a history of such events. As soon as the shaking stops, the partners at XYZ Engineering, a large firm located in downtown Urbanville, begin preparing for post-earthquake response. As news reports come in, it appears that the earthquake has caused damage, but the damage does not seem to be extreme. The view from the windows of the XYZ Engineering office supports this observation.

Almost immediately, XYZ Engineering receives a call from We Are Properties, a significant property owner (and important past and future client) in and around Urbanville. They request XYZ Engineers to perform safety evaluations of some 50 properties, most of which have reported only limited cosmetic damage. We Are Properties would pay for the evaluations.

Meanwhile, Building Design Associates, a large architectural firm with whom XYZ Engineers has been trying to develop contacts, has called requesting safety evaluations for some of their clients. The extent of damage at these buildings is unknown. Building Design Associates would pay for the evaluations.

The local building department has also called requesting manpower assistance in performing evaluations in the large historic district in Urbanville, where extensive damage, including some partial collapse, has occurred. Work for the building department would be on a voluntary basis.

Finally, one of the partners at XYZ suggests that they contact various emergency service providers, such as hospitals, to offer their evaluation services.

Because of several important deadlines related to ongoing design work, that for various reasons have very little flexibility without significant consequences, XYZ Engineers is able to commit only limited staff to fulfill these post-earthquake response requests. How should they prioritize the response effort?

Response Summary:

The response to this scenario was varied, the likely result of different priorities and understanding of the situation among the respondents. The one clear priority was toward damage that represented an immediate or substantial risk to public safety, regardless of whether the damage evaluation was being performed for a paying client or a non-paying public agency.

Many readers suggested that XYZ Engineers do all they could to reschedule current work if that would assist in the earthquake response despite the limitations that were implied in the case situation.

The weighting of the priorities for response were somewhat evenly distributed among the various options as indicated by the rating summary below and the summary of reader comments that follow.

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

Resource Commitment:

  1. Regardless of consequences, XYZ Engineers should commit all of their staff to the post-earthquake response. Their foremost ethical responsibility is towards public safety. Average Rating: 2.7 (min: 1, max: 5)
  2. It is ethically acceptable for XYZ Engineers to commit only the resources that can be reasonably expended on post-earthquake response. Average Rating: 3.9 (min: 2, max: 5)

Prioritizing Response Efforts

  1. Based on the reports of no significant damage to the buildings owned by We Are Properties, XYZ Engineers should consider these evaluations as a low priority. Average Rating: 3.0 (min: 1, max: 4)
  2. Because We Are Properties is an important client, their request should be given a high priority. Average Rating: 3.2 (min: 1, max: 5)
  3. Because Building Design Associates is a potentially important client, their request should be considered a high priority. Average Rating: 2.8 (min: 1, max: 5)
  4. Since XYZ Engineers has no prior relationship with Building Design Associates, their request should be considered a low priority. Average Rating: 2.5 (min: 1, max: 5)
  5. There appear to be obvious life safety concerns in the historic district. Therefore, the building department’s request should be given a high priority, based on the engineer’s obligations to public safety. Average Rating: 4.0 (min: 2, max: 5)
  6. The building department is not a paying client, so their request should be given a low priority. Average Rating: 2.1 (min: 1, max: 5)
  7. Hospitals and other emergency response facilities are of the utmost importance, and therefore XYZ Engineers should consider offering services that would assist in reoccupancy of these buildings as a high priority, even at the expense of other clients.. Average Rating: 3.3 (min: 1, max: 5)
  8. Since they have not been requested, XYZ Engineers should not waste valuable resources in pursuing these evaluations. Consider this a low priority Average Rating: 3.1 (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. Availability of other local engineering firms to supply personnel and how critical are the needs of the building department.
  2. Financial status of the firm and its ability to support pro bono work.
  3. Size and scheduling flexibility of the firm and its ability to reconfigure the workload.
  4. Substantiation or reliability of the reports of "cosmetic damage" to We Are Properties buildings.
  5. Whether or not Urbanville has mutual aid programs.
  6. Information on the types of buildings, occupancy, etc.

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the XYZ Engineers. 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.

Most respondents indicated that XYZ Engineers should make some effort to reschedule the current work and shift deadlines. This is often possible in the real world, but in this particular case, the scenario involved inflexible deadlines in order to emphasize the resource allocation dilemma.

Many different sets recommended actions were suggested by respondents, and these seemed to reflect various priorities. Examples are as follow:

  • First priority should be inspections of potentially dangerous buildings. Second priority should be current clients (for whom loyalty is beneficial), with resources allocated based on the expected level of damage.
  • Provide the largest portion of resources to the city for use at their discretion, and place current and new paying clients as a second priority, with the lowest priority on current work.
  • The top priority is existing clients, followed by potential future clients and local volunteer work. This position seemed to reflect those who prioritized the work based on "business decisions."
  • Priorities are based on understanding of damage levels; highest to the building department for help in the historic district, then to clients where the level of damage is not known, and lastly, where damage was reported to be minor or cosmetic (though some noted that the reports of "cosmetic" damage should be confirmed by professionals).
  • Allocate assets based on balancing the objectives of being "good corporate citizen, respond(ing) to the community’s needs, and obtain(ing) profit" according to one reader. There is no reason not to get paid for these services and giving paying clients a reasonable priority. Even during a disaster, the firm owners do have a responsibility for meeting contract obligations and paying their bills and staff. Working for paying clients to get their buildings inspected and reopen for operation can be just as beneficial to the community at large as voluntary work for the building department.

Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following question:

How should a professional engineering firm consider the choices between serving paying clients and providing non-paying public safety services following an earthquake?

Many of those who responded to this question indicated that there must be a balance between an obligation to public safety and to the business (keeping the doors open, supporting employees, etc).

Concerning the side for public safety and assisting non-paying public agencies, readers offered the following comments. Reducing the immediate risks to life takes priority over paying clients because of a responsibility to the community. Investigating post-earthquake damage is good for professional development and marketing and helps the public. Finally, it is good to help the government to establish or improve professional relationships.

Concerning the side for serving paying clients, some readers indicated that paying clients are the first priority and that there is no ethical obligation to support non-paying services.