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Triangle of Life vs. Drop, Cover, and Hold On

Posted by Wayne Bennett on

Triangle of Life is a controversial approach to earthquake survival. Drop, Cover, and Hold On has been a part of California schools preparedness for as long as I can recall. Originally, it was called Duck and Cover from the civil defense days. But, as California experienced more earthquakes we realized that the furniture we were using as cover, moves leaving one unprotected. So the change to have everyone” hold on” to their cover was introduced.

Then, along comes an email from Doug Copp, a self-proclaimed rescue expert with no formal training in Urban Search and Rescue, disaster preparedness, or firefighting or emergency medical services. His work experience was with a demolition company in Northern California.

In the email, Copp claims that it is much safer to lie next to the furniture, rather than underneath and use it as cover. He is encouraging schools to have children to lie in the aisles instead of using desks with steel legs and wood tops as protection. The theory of “Triangle of Life” is a legitimate rescue term that comes from rescuers in the past locating victims in void spaces in collapsed structures. A void space would be created when a building and its roof collapse and land on the contents in the room, i.e. furniture or school desks, a void space will be created where persons could survive. The lean-to an effect of the of all this rubble  is very unpredictable. With no cover or protection from the falling debris, you would be very vulnerable to injuries.

Of course taking proper cover protects you from falling objects and building construction that could impale a person or cause head and neck injuries. Proper cover means you are on the floor on your knees with your face buried in your knees with your arms protecting the sides of your face as your hands are hanging onto the furniture to prevent moving. This strategy also protects you from imploding glass shards flying through the room.

I have been in collapsed structures, the furniture has never been crushed. What we find is that the collapsed ceiling or roof is lying on top of the furniture. The load of the roof had been shared across the room. So, take advantage of the Triangle of Life (void spaces) that may present themselves, but cover at the same time. This gives you two opportunities for survival.

As a retired firefighter, I wore a polycarbonate helmet for 30 years that gave me an amazing level of protection. I cannot count the number times it saved me from serious head injuries. I would think we would all want to take advantage of furniture as a great source of protection.

To think everything will be crushed in an earthquake or collapsing structures is not realistic with California construction. Schools are built to an even higher standard than normal commercial construction. We build with lightweight building materials such as wood. When we use concrete, it is reinforced with steel.

Past earthquakes tell the story of success with California construction versus countries like China, Turkey, and Pakistan, who have all had losses of life in the 5,000 to 30,000 range. California’s two earthquakes resulted in about 120 fatalities. Both of those disasters were magnitude 7.1. Our building standards speak for themselves.

What concerns me, is how many school teachers may have been influenced by the erroneous Triangle of Life email and will place their (our) children in harms way by having them lie in the aisles. To think that not having a cover (head and neck protection), during an earthquake is better than Drop, Cover and Hold On is irresponsible and dangerous. Remember, you cannot outrun an earthquake, Drop, Cover, and Hold On will not only save lives, but it will reduce panic and chaos by avoiding any running during the shaking. For more strategies for earthquake response for schools, check out our “Disaster Response Guide for Schools


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