Earthquake drills save lives, but embarrassment, mobility issues hinder participation, study finds

Registration in Thursday’s Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill is up slightly — but experts look to increase participation.

Earthquake drill participants practice “drop, cover and hold on.” Photo: Earthquake Country Alliance

Just three days before Thursday’s 12th annual Great California ShakeOut, the earthquake drill practiced by millions of Californians, only one in five Alameda County residents had signed up.

But according to Terri Langdon, senior emergency services coordinator for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services, that changed Tuesday, when 200,000 people registered for the drill within 24 hours of the magnitude 4.5 Pleasant Hill earthquake late Monday night. Participation is up statewide as well, Langdon said, and recent earthquakes around the state are likely a factor.

“Sometimes it takes a little shaker to make us remember where we are in earthquake country,” Langdon said.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Langdon said 72,368 people had registered in Berkeley, but she didn’t know whether participation was up or down compared to other years. (Residents can register for this year’s ShakeOut, which takes place at 10:17 a.m. Thursday, here.)


Despite the overall increase in registration, participation in the ShakeOut exercise remains fairly low, with one in three people participating countywide and one in four statewide.

A new study of ShakeOut participants in New Zealand identified three factors that hinder participation — age-related fragility, disability and plain old embarrassment.

“Who wants their colleagues to see that they can’t get under their own desk?” said Sara McBride, the United States Geological Survey social scientist who led the study.

McBride conducted the study in 2012 and 2015, during a period of increasing seismic activity in New Zealand. A team of scientists used observational methods to explore why more than a third of 8,000 ShakeOut participants — at schools, businesses, government offices, healthcare facilities, and elsewhere — didn’t complete the drill.


Embarrassment was the leading cause. Nearly 40% of non-participants did not “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” due to what the observers perceived as feelings of awkwardness, chagrin, or threat to “one’s desired image in the presence of other people.”

The ShakeOut drill in the United States asks able-bodied participants to “Drop to the ground, take Cover under a table or desk, and Hold On to it as if a major earthquake were happening,” according to their website. While holding that position, participants are supposed to reflect on potential hazards, and what could be done to mitigate them.

McBride said she doesn’t know whether the study results would be replicable in Berkeley. Social science findings are culturally specific, but she hopes her findings will help preparedness experts in the Bay Area and globally understand people’s varied responses to earthquake drills, improve messaging, and ultimately save lives.

When asked whether she thought McBride’s embarrassment findings have local relevance, Sharon Sandow, Bay Area director of Earthquake Country Alliance, which develops preparedness messaging, said yes, pointing to a recent personal experience.

Sandow said that when the largest earthquake in 20 years rocked Southern California in July, even she felt awkward following protocol in public. Sandow, who was grocery shopping when the first Ridgecrest earthquake struck, didn’t drop, cover, or hold on. She said no one around her did.

But the next day, when a 7.1 quake hit, Sandow was in the privacy of her home. She didn’t think twice before diving under the dining room table. Her husband, who works for the United States Geological Survey, was quick to meet her there.


“Embarrassment, or fear, is a powerful factor,” said Sandow, thinking back to her reaction at the grocery store.

For people with mobility disabilities, the emotional challenges of participating in standard earthquake drills may be secondary to physical ones. McBride’s study found that people with disabilities and age-related fragility were some of the least likely to complete ShakeOut.

In the United States, Earthquake Country Alliance provides instructions specific to people who use wheelchairs, walkers and canes, who are deaf or blind, and for those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. But still, earthquake safety remains a challenge for people who are not able-bodied.

That’s why Easy Does It, a Berkeley nonprofit, supplies elderly and disabled residents with one-on-one home-based disaster preparedness training. The workshops are designed to help clients think through their specific circumstances and often involve the client’s network of family, caregivers, and neighbors.

Easy Does It Executive Director Nikki Brown-Booker was initially surprised by McBride’s “embarrassment” finding but said her clients may experience shame when they don’t know how to prepare for a disaster or to ask for help.

A 2016 study conducted by the organization asked older and mobility-impaired clients why they don’t participate in preparedness drills.

“I’m unable to attend events outside of my home,” wrote one Berkeley resident.

“Every special-needs person is so different,” wrote another, “It’s unlikely a group workshop would really be helpful.”

Berkeley resident Harry Lieberman, who uses a cane, said he’s never participated in an earthquake drill. Lieberman didn’t identify with the embarrassment finding. Rather, the retired psychologist wondered if people might not participate in drills, or devote much effort to preparedness, because they fear that fixating on a thought—in this case, the possibility of a catastrophic earthquake—could will it into existence.

Lieberman called this phenomenon “magical thinking.”

Understanding people’s varied responses to preparedness efforts like ShakeOut could help researchers develop more effective communication strategies, said McBride. A survivor of New Zealand’s 2016 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake, which ruptured across a record-breaking 21 faults, McBride said she’s more empathetic as a result of her study — and also still afraid.

“When it came down to it and a big earthquake came,” she said, “I was scared too.”