Today at Berkeley Lab

Be Prepared, Stay Safe in the Event of an Earthquake on the Hill

Earthquakes are a reality of living in California, and how to prepare for the “Big One” is something most Californians ponder at some point in time. Earthquakes are one of the top emergency scenarios Berkeley Lab prepares for, and like all emergency preparedness situations, there’s a role for employees as well. The more informed we all are, the more prepared the Lab is overall.

— By Keri Troutman

Jolting awake at 4:30 am to the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake forever altered David Stein’s outlook on living in California. “They can happen really when you least expect it, and that’s when you have to expect it,” he says. Stein, an administrator in Berkeley Lab’s Office of Institutional Assurance and Integrity (OIAI), was living in Hollywood in 1994 when the devastating Northridge quake hit. He wasn’t hurt in the quake, but surviving for days afterward without electricity or phone service was something he’ll never forget. Stein is now a member of Berkeley Lab’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)—since the Northridge quake, earthquake preparedness is something he takes seriously.

It’s something Berkeley Lab takes seriously as well. Given our unique challenges as a scientific facility located in the midst of a bustling urban environment, earthquake preparation requires extra planning and preparation. Jessica Doyle, emergency management specialist at Berkeley Lab, heads up two of the Lab’s three employee-volunteer disaster teams—the CERT team and a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT). The Lab also has an established Damage Assessment Team (DAT) to ensure laboratory operations and systems can be assessed and recovered. To assist these disaster teams, Berkeley Lab maintains six disaster containers (one in each zone) throughout the campus, which are filled with water, food, and medical supplies.

“We are really focused on sustainability for our Lab employees,” says Berkeley Lab’s Emergency Manager, Tonya Petty. “We cannot store enough food and water and provide shelter for everyone, so part of our earthquake preparation is coordinating with local agencies, such as the City of Berkeley and Red Cross—the goal being to get people off the hill and into shelters if they can’t get home,” says Petty. “After a quake, the most important thing employees can do is listen to instructions from first responders; our CERT, MERT, and DAT teams will be springing into action.”

Petty estimates that after a major earthquake, about one third of the Lab’s population will require medical care. For basic first aid, the Lab relies on its 100 CERT members, who’ve gone through 20 hours of training in basic fire suppression, medical assessment, and light search and rescue. CERT members also are provided quarterly drill opportunities and other trainings specific to Berkeley Lab.

The Lab’s 13-member MERT team are all certified Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). “Given our location up on the hill, it is key that we have trained medical personnel on site,” says Petty. In addition to the MERT team, Berkeley Lab’s fire department always has at least one paramedic and three trained EMTs on duty.

“The leading cause of injuries after an earthquake is falling debris,” says Doyle. “Employees also need to keep in mind that many safety features in a building may no longer be functional after a major earthquake—smoke alarms very likely won’t be working and chemical hazards may be present, despite our stringent safety protocols.” This is where the Lab’s damage assessment team (DAT) comes in. The 25 state-certified members of the Lab’s DAT team work in teams of five, with each team including three engineers or architects and at least one safety professional as they inspect buildings to assess whether they’re save to reenter and reoccupy. “Following the drop, cover, and hold evacuate your building and don’t reenter until the DAT deems it safe,” adds Doyle.

Teresa Calarco, who directs business operations in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Science Division, knows firsthand the experience of living through an earthquake in a scientific research facility—she was working at a small biotech company in Emeryville when the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989. Calarco recalls that the earthquake was directional—so some buildings had no damage and in other labs everything fell off the shelves. “Our EH&S people had a lot of work to clean up everything that had fallen and spilled,” she says. “In one of our protein purification labs, some of the gas cylinders were improperly anchored and my coworkers literally had to jump over them as they rolled around the floor during the earthquake.”

Calarco recalls that many of her coworkers wanted to come in and help clean up their Labs after the quake, but the company had to keep the buildings evacuated for a couple of days before enough cleanup and damage assessment made them safe to occupy again. Calarco has been extremely cognizant of earthquake preparedness ever since this experience, and has been a member of Berkeley Lab’s CERT team for the past 2 years.

Individual earthquake preparedness at the Lab is similar to earthquake preparedness at home—going through each room and thinking about how you can make each a little bit safer, like securing bookshelves to walls and making sure beds aren’t located under windows. If you need help with office earthquake preparedness at the Lab, Facilities can help, says Doyle.

Doyle recommends that home emergency kits contain enough food and water to sustain family members for at least 72 hours until more help arrives. “While we don’t expect Lab employees to maintain full emergency kits at work, it is a good idea to store some energy bars in your desk drawer and have a pair of sneakers handy if you don’t wear comfortable walking shoes to work every day.” She also recommends always storing water and a first aid kit in your car, and keeping your gas tank full in preparation for a long evacuation. Knowing different ways home from work and around your community is also an important consideration in the event of a major earthquake, as it’s very likely cell service would be down.

Stein says he remembers feeling isolated in the days after the Northridge quake, despite the fact that he was in the middle of Los Angeles. Without power and with phone lines down, he and his neighbors had to rely on one another. “People were very generous and we all sort of banded together and had potlucks and just hung out,” he says. “I guess one earthquake preparedness lesson you could glean from that is to get to know your neighbors!”

Earthquake Resources

Sign up for LabAlert

Sign up for Nixle and ACAlerts


USGS Earthquake Preparedness Resources

Emergency Kits

Red Cross Earthquake Safety Guide

The Great California ShakeOut