Ode to the Shakeout: Why I love earthquake drills

We enjoy fellow Portlander Steven Eberlein’s take on the Great ShakeOut. He’s a keynote speaker who’s inspired thousands of people to take action and prepare for a Cascadia earthquake. If you have not attended one of his talks, check out his Portland TedX Talk.


Ode to the Shakeout: Why I love earthquake drills

By Steven Eberlein

I love the awkwardness, I love people’s reluctance to participate, I love the slow domino effect of begrudging cooperation, I love the embarrassed laughter of people returning to their seats. I love everything about earthquake drills because, in that one minute of pretend shaking, we witness the power of our influence over one another. I will assume you hate drills, so let me lend you my eyes so that you might better enjoy the Great Shakeout.

There are two reasons that earthquake drills like the Great Shakeout are important. First, the nerdy reason: during an emergency, your frontal cortex (aka “your smart brain”) is overrun by your amygdala (aka “your dumb explosive brain”) due to a fear-driven process called “amygdala hijack.” Your amygdala only learn effectively through repeated, physical practice – so get under the damn table.

But there’s a second reason we must participate in earthquake drills that is never acknowledged: we need to do earthquake drills because they’re awkward.

I didn’t miss-word that. We don’t like to acknowledge that we need one another’s reinforcement to perform a life-preserving act. We don’t like to acknowledge that we need permission to do what’s smart. But permission is precisely what we’re looking for when taking action during a time of fear and uncertainty. When you run an earthquake drill, you are working to build a permission structure that will persuade everyone to do something awkward and potentially life-saving action together. This sentence demands clarification.

In a Great Shakeout drill or a real seismic event, "everyone" can be categorized into four distinct groups. Think of these groups as dominoes - the challenge is to get one group's reaction to tip into the other until everyone is under a table:

  1. The leader. This is the first person to take the drop/cover/hold-on position. In a drill, leadership typically falls to the risk manager. In a real earthquake, the leader is the person with courage to take cover first, regardless of the behavior of others. The leader is that indispensable first domino. It only takes one person to set of the next cluster of dominoes.
  2. The true believers. "True believers" take their queue from the leader without hesitation. Some drop to the floor because they believe in and understand the value of the drill while others drop because they're sympathetic to the leader, who will look insane without followers. The motivation doesn’t matter – “true believers” are important because they trigger a reaction in the next domino, which is the largest of the four.
  3. The reluctantly willing. This group is the largest of the four, and their participation is a coin flip. The water has to be just right -- they will let the leader perform this drill as a solo act if they're not feeling it. (Having led 100 drills, I can attest to the awkwardness of that experience). However, once the “reluctantly willing” see that the “true believers” are in, they have the social consensus they need to feel okay participating.
  4. The eye-rollers.  This group is truly reluctant. Eye-rollers are a hard no on things like this. However, the social dynamics of the room have abruptly shifted against them. The "leader," the "true believers" and the "reluctantly willing" are under their desks. "Eye-rollers" are still in their seats weighing the self-loathing that comes with group participation against the discomfort of looking like a jerk when everyone else is being a good sport. Some will join. Some won't.

If it seems that I’m being hard on our last group, let me confess that I am a standard bearer for the eye-rollers in similar social situations. From my perspective, the dynamics of earthquake drills are much like standing ovations, a ritual that I positively hate. At 13, I gave a solo standing ovation at an off-Broadway staging of Cats that left a tiny insecure dent in my 41-year-old soul. Today, while all of you are standing and clapping at the end of a performance, I’m still in my seat, calculating. I'd like to shout “I’ve seen better!! Practice more!” But when all is said and done, I almost always stand and clap... after everyone else has begun to do so. I stand mostly because I don't want to look like a jerk. It's a sentiment that drives most of us to a degree.

Here’s the lesson: there’s nothing you can say to an “eye roller” that will make them change their views or behavior; however, the sight of others changing their behavior creates a different kind of persuasive pressure that is difficult to ignore. This is a powerful force that we can can be harvested for the greater good.

The Great Shakeout is about more than practicing drop/cover/hold-on – it's an experiment with social dynamics. As a group, you’re deciding how you’re going to deal with the awkwardness and uncertainty of a real emergency. Who’s going to rule the response? Will the “leader” and the “true believers” set off a domino effect of life-saving action or will the “eye-rollers” infect us with uncertainty and inaction? You won't know until you try, and try often.


Spread the preparedness word!