In the U.S., most injuries during an earthquake are caused by falling objects. Over 90% of physical damage is to building contents. Securing contents prevents most injuries, lessens damages, and ensures a smoother evacuation.

Non-Structural Hazard Mitigation

Non-structural items inside and outside of a building can be extremely dangerous during an earthquake. The work of securing those items is called non-structural hazard mitigation (NSHM). It reduces the risks and impacts of these potentially hazardous items by relocating/securing them or by changing where people spend most of their time.

  • Large bookcases
  • Contents of open shelving
  • Teachers' desks
  • Stacks of chairs
  • Cafeteria tables
  • Pianos
  • Filing cabinets
  • Lockers
  • Rolling computer carts
  • Light fixtures
  • Copy machines
  • Appliances
  • Kitchen equipment
  • Shop equipment
  • Projectors
  • Art on walls

The Case of California

California public schools are some of the most earthquake resistant buildings in the world, but that doesn't mean their contents are secure. They've experienced multiple earthquakes that have proven the dangers of not addressing non-structural hazards. Fortunately, those earthquakes happened outside of school hours.

Despite these obvious deadly risks, California still hasn't addressed the issue head on. Fire Marshals regularly inspect schools. They could take on earthquake safety, but the state hasn't given them legal authority to do so.

We face this same issue in Oregon.

Simple First Steps

Do a Hazard Hunt

First, you need to identify what would be dangerous during an earthquake. Use a hazard hunt checklist to identify issues, and use FEMA's School Hazard Hunt to guide you. Create a walk-through report with photos. This will help you build your case for the need for this type of work and help you secure funding when the time comes.

Do Basic Housekeeping

Many earthquake-related injuries can be prevented by some basic housekeeping. The less clutter the better. Work with teachers and administrators on reorganizing rooms to reduce hazards. Does that old projector need to be on the top shelf of the bookcase? At the end of each year, PTAs may be able to organize volunteers and pay for a dumpster to help clean out classrooms.

Common questions

Who's responsible for this?

Schools have certain fire-safety regulations they need to abide by, such as keeping exit pathways clear. But there are currently no legal seismic safety requirements. NSHM work is informally handled by school staff, safety committees, and parents. Schools may choose to do some NSHM improvements themselves, and a few Portland Public Schools are doing this work.

That being said, PPS is currently rewriting district standards for furniture, including the bracing of large furniture. At newly-built PPS schools, all of the attached fixtures (like lights) are subject to current building code, so they meet the current seismic standard for life safety. And the lockers in new schools are built-in, so they do not present a fall hazard.

Who pays for this?

Portland Public Schools doesn’t provide specific funding for this work, but it could potentially be funded by the regular operating budget. There is a potential for NSHM advocacy work during district budget hearings, and we hope P4P members will step up to help with that. Normally, it’s left to PTAs to raise the funds. In addition to paying for the contractor, the PTA must also have appropriate insurance.

You may ask, why can’t we give the money to the school and have them do the work? At this time, we don’t recommend this. It would involve many additional barriers (work orders, lots of waiting, securing an independent PPS project manager, etc). Ideally, PPS will create policies, procedures, and funding for this work at all schools in the future.

What are the steps to getting this work done?

At PPS, this is the usual process:

  1. Talk to your administrator. Identify a few teachers who are good candidates (flexible, okay with people coming into their space, etc.). When meeting with the teacher, provide some background information about why this work is important, and assure them that your team will do its best not to be disruptive.
  2. Do a hazard hunt with the teacher (see documents above). Consider inviting your Neighborhood Emergency Team (or Community Emergency Response Team) to come help with the hazard hunt. If they haven’t already, they’ll need to complete a PPS background check.
  3. Raise money to pay for the work. Look at the Fundraising folder on the P4P Basecamp site for ideas. Some PTAs are able/willing to assist with funding.
  4. Find a contractor experienced in non-structural mitigation/strapping, and make sure that they have the right personality. If they aren’t sensitive to the issues of scheduling, budget, lack of time, lack of space, etc, it could cause issues and impede future work. PPS may be able to connect you with a pre-approved contractor.
  5. Contact PPS. They will assign a Project Manager to do a walk-through of the rooms and then give permission to proceed.

How can I get this done quickly?

You can't. Start small with just a few classrooms. That may take a full year if you consider all of the bureaucratic work that needs to be done before the manual work begins. Scheduling can be a big challenge. The work needs to be done when children aren’t around, which means it has to be done during a break. Getting the contractor access to the building during a break can be challenging.

Why is this so complicated?

Most of this work requires drilling into walls or floors, which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. Many Portland school buildings are 100+ years old, so we have to think about asbestos, lead, old wires, etc. In older buildings, PPS will not allow you to drill into ceilings at all.

A licensed contractor has to do the work, and the contractor must be supervised by a PPS Project Manager. This all requires time, patience, and money.

What if my student's teacher is resistant?

You will likely find that some teachers are not welcoming to this type of work. They may prefer to have the flexibility to rearrange their classrooms, which isn’t possible when furniture is secured to the walls. Expect some hesitation, as any work in the classroom or additional requirements can be seen as a burden. Be sensitive to the teacher’s storage needs, limitations, and desire to reorganize their space to encourage learning. Be prepared to offer volunteer assistance for any reorganization work that may be required.

Please keep in mind that teachers have a lot of priorities to juggle, not the least of which is educating your children. Work with your school’s administrator to identify classrooms/teachers that would be open to NSM, and start there. Remember, our goal is to make all children safe, so any work you do at the school is worthwhile.

Irvington Elementary

In December 2016, Irvington Elementary completed some basic non-structural hazard mitigation work. A few simple straps and brackets will prevent heavy furniture from injuring children and staff. See more photos.

Other Resources

do this at home

Your kids spend more time at home than at school. Make sure your home is safe. Use FEMA’s Home Hazard Hunt Poster to guide you.

The best reason to have earthquake-resistant interiors is to reduce our likelihood of getting injured. But it can also reduce the amount of time we would need to stay out of our homes after an earthquake. Imagine what your kitchen would look like if all of your dishes came flying out of the cabinets and your appliances tipped over. Cleanup and recovery will be a lot easier if you install some simple cabinet latches and appliance straps now.