March/April 2003

Earthquake Safety: The Spotlight Is on Seismology

Today seismology is poised to play its most important role yet in helping the public make good decisions regarding earthquake safety. New applications and products have the potential to change the way people think about, prepare for, and experience earthquakes. But will the new products really save lives and significantly reduce financial losses in the next major urban earthquake? Much of the answer depends on how successfully we practice outreach between now and then.

Some of the new products generated by the earthquake science community are remarkably user-friendly, and seismology has played the key role in their development. A few examples:

  • NEHRP probabilistic ground-shaking maps allow the emergency response community to compare the geographic pattern of seismic hazard with the deployment of their emergency response resources. The resulting adjustments to their systems will save lives by shortening postearthquake response times.
  • Earthquake scenarios based on seismic intensity maps from a hypothetical earthquake, combined with a HAZUS-type population and infrastructure database, help emergency planners understand realistic damage and casualty patterns for large urban earthquakes.
  • The seismic-hazard mapping program of the California Geological Survey requires predevelopment mitigation planning for nearly every new project that falls within a mapped area. Already the maps cover much of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. The result is that, for the first time, liquefaction and earthquake-triggered landslide hazards are being mitigated during construction of facilities such as private homes, shopping centers, and low-rise office buildings.
  • The new TriNet ShakeMaps improve the deployment of emergency response teams after an earthquake and inform the public of the location and scope of the damage, within minutes after the earthquake stops. ShakeMaps are the ground-motion maps produced in near real-time from telemetered strong-motion instrument records.

These new applications open up tremendous opportunities for changing the way both professionals and the public respond to earthquakes. This potential for saving lives and reducing damage places earthquake scientists as close to the spotlight as we have been for many years. It also brings with it a daunting level of responsibility, one that most of us have not experienced before. For example, the public's expectation is that the products are now online and reliable, and will be in operation when the next major urban earthquake strikes in California.

I believe that our goal must be that these products will be widely used by decision-makers from all parts of society, to save lives in the next earthquake anywhere in North America. The most effective strategy to accomplish this is to demonstrate how the products can be used to make smarter safety decisions when the earthquake strikes. But how can we reach the people who actually make the life-and-death decisions before, during, and after the earthquake? Traditionally, their decisions have been dominated by nontechnical, or at least nonseismological, factors. To change that, we have to help them understand what these new products can do. Your participation is critical in making that happen.

How Does Outreach Really Work?

Let's start by drawing a distinction between outreach and education.

Education is the process by which a wise "teacher" decides what is important and passes that knowledge on to a "learner." The process is primarily a one-way transmission of the knowledge determined by the teacher to be appropriate for the learner. If the learner is either not interested in the knowledge or cannot understand it, then the transmission fails. Today, education is attempted in different ways-by broadcasting over the air waves or in print, by spreading the word to small, select groups in the classroom, and by one-on-one tutoring between a teacher and a learner. In each case, the education process requires that the teacher has mastered the knowledge and how to transmit it, and that the learner has the requisite interest and understanding to receive it. Based on the number of today's students who show enough interest to take any science courses at all, let alone seismology courses, we should not be encouraged that traditional education will have a widespread impact.

Outreach is quite a different process. Think of it as a two-way communication effort that brings two or more equal parties together to tap the knowledge and insight of each other in order to benefit from it. For example, structural engineers and seismologists, or politicians and Earth scientists, both need to participate in outreach if the process is to work. Each party has something to gain from reaching out to the other. It is not a teacher-learner relationship, or education process, at all. In fact, in outreach terminology, the education process might be better characterized as "downreach" from the teacher to the learner.

The implications of this distinction are quite substantial. Outreach is not successful if one of the parties believes that it has nothing to gain from the other. Furthermore, learning about the problems and issues of the other party is the only way for one to know what is important to contribute to the dialog. Finally, the relationship is obviously a sensitive one-when it moves into a teacher-learner relationship, the outreach effort terminates. Few decision-makers believe they need to be on the receiving end of a downreach effort.

What Is the Nature of Outreach Needed?

I was reminded recently by a member of the press of what used to happen just after an earthquake. He and his colleagues would drive as fast as they could to the local university, where they would wait breathlessly for the seismologists to determine the preliminary magnitude and location of the epicenter. They would then report it as quickly as possible on the radio. Progress consisted of having a mobile studio, so they could broadcast directly from the campus. They were provided with the preliminary magnitude and epicenter, even though neither was particularly relevant to their audience. The epicenter often did not correlate with the areas of greatest damage, and the magnitude was not reflective of the shaking intensity or damage without considering the depth, which usually took much longer to determine. People would still have to await the morning helicopter footage to see where and how bad the damage really was.

Today, networks of strong-motion instruments collect and transmit ground-motion data to a central site, where a map of the distribution of shaking in the near field is prepared and published within minutes. The ground-shaking intensity information that it displays is relevant indeed. The map shortens the response time of fire and rescue professionals, and it helps the public gain a real assessment of the scale of the catastrophe. We could be helping the nontechnical community identify other uses, too. For example, the same data can be used by business leaders to evaluate quickly how they can limit downtime by moving services and operations to undamaged facilities nearby, when they know what areas are likely to be unaffected or back in operation again quickly.

New products from seismology can result in a new relationship between seismologists and policy-makers. But this relationship needs to be one of outreach, not education. Many key decision-makers have made safety decisions before, so they bring knowledge about that process that seismologists normally do not have. We provide helpful input only when we listen and understand what it is that they can use in their decision-making process. We have an obligation to learn how the safety community operates if we are to supply them with the right information. If the research community is unwilling to participate actively, a cottage industry of paid consultants who are not necessarily scientists will probably emerge quickly to meet those needs for their clients, but that would be much less helpful to the public.

Helping the public make good earthquake safety decisions will be a major challenge. Each time I am asked whether California will really fall into the sea in the next Big One, I am reminded how profound the disconnect with the nonscientific community really is. But those people make important safety decisions for themselves and their families too. This is not the time to dazzle them with scientific information that they won't understand or cannot use. Our goal should be to develop messages that will make a big difference in how people prepare themselves and their surroundings to improve their safety.

Listening Is a Big Part of Outreach

Effective outreach requires an enormous amount of listening. We must learn how safety decision-making works in all parts of society, since all parts are affected. We must know who makes what decisions; how, when, and where they make those decisions; and whom they will impact. Well prepared emergency professionals and politicians have thought about what information they can use and how they will use it. Many other people in decision-making positions are not prepared and will not have considered how to react to a damaging earthquake. Engaging those people before the earthquake strikes helps us understand what messages they can use and how we can tailor the messages for best effect. Consider the challenge in communicating with a senior administrative official who does not understand the difference between magnitude and intensity. How critical is that understanding to the decisions he will make? Is the solution to explain the difference and hope he gets it (education), or to transmit a message that is more relevant to him at the time of the earthquake (outreach)? To do the latter requires that we know how that official processes decisions, and that knowledge requires that we listen.

Outreach Can Define the Truly Useful Messages

Which messages are most useful to deliver? I submit that the important messages accomplish one or more of the following:

  • help professionals do their work better,
  • improve the safety of the people who are most at risk, and/or
  • dispel myths and reduce fear among the general population.

ShakeMaps are a good example. They help emergency professionals respond faster, but they also tell the rest of the population whether their relatives and friends were likely to be affected or not. Sometimes the message will be that the seriously affected area is only a very small portion of a city and that the rest of the city was not likely to be damaged at all. Thus ShakeMaps can offset the exaggerations that sometimes distort the media versions of the event.

A second important public safety message is the description of the foreshock likelihood and the aftershock pattern to be expected. That message is not particularly easy to deliver, since so few people understand the concept of probability. Including in the message a simple primer on probability might be helpful. Repeating the message many times probably helps too.

A third useful message might tell people what to expect in the way of physical and financial support in the hours, days, and weeks after the earthquake strikes. This message is traditionally left to emergency personnel and politicians, but we should be able to help those decision-makers craft a more accurate message. In addition, it seems appropriate for seismologists to take on some of this role when visiting the site in the days after the earthquake. Helping people deal with the aftereffects of the earthquake by explaining what will be happening next would enable the locals to cope more effectively with their losses. We should learn some basic facts about relief efforts and the agencies that provide them.

Outreach Might Dictate How We Deliver the Messages, Too

Once we decide which messages are critical, they have to be delivered in a way that key recipients can understand. Media interviews of experts often fail to get our intended message across, and it is not always the fault of the reporter. One problem is that we are accustomed to using technical words and concepts that can be understood only by other professionals. Delivering a message using only commonly understood words takes practice and effort. Television interviews are exceptionally difficult because the message has to be delivered in short sound bites. We have to keep it clear, concise, and, most importantly, simple.

We rely too much on the press to translate our messages for the public. The press may have little incentive to allay the fears of the public, since the larger the disaster appears to be, the better the ratings. Consequently, we cannot assume that the press is our "friend." The press is a valuable communication tool, but it should not control the message. We can retain control if we craft the message for our audience from the beginning and deliver it well. It is helpful to explore other delivery paths; the Internet is certainly one with great promise.


The potential is great, but so are the challenges, as seismology moves into the spotlight on the public stage. The new products are already having an impressive impact, and more will surely be developed from recent research breakthroughs. We need to start an outreach program that forms a two-way communications link with a wider variety of decision-makers, so that we do not miss this golden opportunity to advance earthquake safety.

Bruce R. Clark
Chair, California Seismic Safety Commission

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact the SRL editor by e-mail.

Posted: 24 February 2003