Earthquake preparedness expert Steven Eberlein joins Danielle Ricci, Vice President of Marketing for AlertFind, to talk about how businesses can prepare for the unique challenges that earthquakes pose.

In our upcoming webinar, he’ll discuss the key areas that companies must address – the unique challenges of preparing for earthquakes because they hit with no notice. He’ll walk organizations through how they can better prepare their employees and their operations with the right training and preparedness mindset.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Join Steven and Danielle as they help organizations better prepare for earthquakes in our new webinar, “Earthquake Preparedness: Key Strategies To Protect Your Business” at 11 a.m. EDT on Thursday, Oct. 18.

Danielle Ricci: Give us some background on earthquakes in the U.S.

Steven Eberlein: So as far as earthquakes in the U.S., let’s remember that we’re a really young country and that many of the earthquakes that have occurred in the United States occurred before we had even inhabited some of these parts of the United States.

We had a big earthquake in Salt Lake City in 1600. We’ve had a massive, massive, massive, earthquake in the Pacific Northwest in 1700. We do have earthquakes, but we have to remember that earthquakes only happen periodically and some of the largest events that would’ve shaped our culture occurred before we showed up.

A lot of these places are in a quiescent period and have been for a long time, but we haven’t experienced as big an earthquake as is capable of happening. So it kind of lulled us into a state of believing that the risk is so remote that we don’t need to get ready for it.

Whereas other places like California, they have the fortune, or misfortune as you might look at it, of having frequent earthquakes. So they’ve already had a public and private sector response to the risk because it’s widely accepted.

You could say the same for Alaska into the 1964 earthquake, but there are also a number of places that have risk, even places that you don’t suspect. Places like Missouri, places like Arkansas, South Carolina, Montana, these places have a high risk but haven’t had the same episodes that lead to the same preparedness response like you see in California. They probably are the best model in the United States.

Danielle Ricci: So how is this impacting businesses?

Steven Eberlein: Earthquakes would impact a business any number of ways. Let’s just first take the fact that any business’ reliance on basic services: internet, running water, flushing toilets, roads, communications, heat. These are the incredible basics that we don’t recognize because we take them for granted.

And then you have to multiply the fact that your employees have homes and they’re relying on those same things. So being able to operate after an earthquake means not only trying to restore or to endure the time period when services are down, but also the fact that your employees are also not working at full capacity because they’re dealing with the same disruptions at home. That’s why earthquakes are so troubling.

Take a tornado or a hurricane. You have warning that it’s coming minutes, if not days, from now. Typically a tornado and a hurricane, they cause massive evacuations, they cause a lot of damage, but they don’t cause wholesale disruption of every single service utility simultaneously. That’s what earthquakes do.

And from there you can only imagine how many ways that business can possibly fail. It’s also worth noting that according to the Small Business Administration, about 15% to 40% of small businesses don’t reopen their doors after an earthquake, which is especially troubling since about 53% of the workforce in the United States is working for a small business right now. So small businesses are especially vulnerable.

And even if you find yourself outside of an earthquake zone, you are dealing with suppliers and businesses that are likely in earthquake zones that may be central to your business. If you’re doing business right now with a supplier in Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles or Alaska or Japan or Oklahoma or Missouri, you are going to be indirectly impacted. So by that measure, I think every single company in the United States has some level of earthquake risk given all the places in the United States that find themselves with huge populations that are not ready for these earthquakes.

Danielle Ricci: What is the average warning that you get for an earthquake?

Steven Eberlein: Zero. You don’t get any warning. With tornados, you at least are told there’s a risk, right? You’re going to be watching The Weather Channel and they’re going to say, “Listen, if you’re in this swath of Oklahoma right now, there is a risk of a tornado coming through. Get ready.” If there’s a hurricane coming, you’re going to get probably a week’s notice. And they start actually issuing evacuation orders.

With earthquakes, we don’t have the technology, we don’t have the science to say, “Hey, there’s an earthquake coming.” And the times that they have tried to forecast earthquakes – for example, the Southern San Andreas seemed like it was ready to go off a couple years ago because there was a swarm of earthquakes in the Salton Sea area, which is the presumed epicenter of the next large San Andreas earthquake.

There was a swarm of earthquakes in that area that they thought might be foreshocks. And then they said, “Hey California, get ready. This might be it.” And then what happened?

Nothing. It didn’t occur. And the public will only endure so many false alarms. It puts people to sleep, and gives them permission to not listen to those warnings. That’s another thing that just makes earthquakes so difficult. They come infrequently, they cause untold damage, and they’re incredibly hard, if not impossible, to forecast at this point.

Danielle Ricci: Historically, what kind of damage do earthquakes do?

Steven Eberlein: Christchurch, New Zealand, is a good example because it’s comparable to a number of cities in the Pacific Northwest that were established somewhere around 1850. It has an infrastructure that is not heavily reinforced.

It cost about 10% of the New Zealand GDP to restore Christchurch, which is actually more than it cost Japan in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake of 2011. That gives you an idea of the destruction and cost.

Danielle Ricci: In the preparedness space, do earthquakes get less attention and research than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods?

Steven Eberlein: Well, here’s what the important thing about hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Places that experience floods, tornadoes and hurricanes have a population that has already been impacted in the past by those events. That’s a really important factor.

The place that you learn about tornado preparedness in Oklahoma is going to be from your grandma. It’s going to be from your dad. It’s going to be from your neighbor. It’s going to be from your boss. It’s going to be from people who’ve actually gone through that event, so it makes it more real for people.

It’s more difficult to get ready for an event that you have never experienced or you’ve only experienced on a much smaller scale of what is actually possible. That’s earthquakes. When you take the Pacific Northwest or you take the Midwest where the New Madrid fault system is laying in wait, people haven’t gone through a really big earthquake in those places.

And yet, a really big earthquake is a possibility. It makes it less real than those tornadoes that we saw on the news and the flooding that we saw in Colorado several years ago. Those were real events that people have actually experienced.

And also, the fact that despite all the seismologists and geologists who are working on earthquake forecasting models, we’re getting really good at tracing past earthquakes and when they happened and where they happened and how big they were.

But we still haven’t cracked the nut on when the next earthquake anywhere is going to occur and really that’s what people are waiting for. People want certainty. That’s what they want. They want to know that there’s going to be an earthquake in Seattle on January 26th of 2029. That’s what people want. And that’s never going to be a possibility, not in the near future with the science that we have at this point.

Danielle Ricci: So how does this uncertainty affect people’s willingness to prepare for earthquakes?

Steven Eberlein: We struggle with the uncertainty of earthquakes and how to prepare for uncertainty. How can you justify getting ready for something if you don’t where it’s going to be, you don’t know how big it’s going to be, and you don’t know when it’s going to happen?

I think we have a hard time justifying to ourselves, and each other, getting ready for an uncertain event. I think we come to resent it because it feels like we’re holding our breath for something that we don’t know when it’s going to happen, and we can only hold our breath for so long. And I think we really come to resent it.

So with earthquake preparedness, it’s really about a cultural change. It’s really about accepting the fact that there is a risk that – and in many of these places, particularly the Pacific Northwest, particularly California – eventually there will be an earthquake.

This is an absolute, scientific certainty that there will be an earthquake in these places. And the key is making a sustainable, cultural change to the way that we live. Accepting that we don’t know when it’s going to happen, but we know it will happen. And we are trying to build a culture now that is going to benefit our children or our grandchildren.

Our children and grandchildren are learning culture from us, more than anybody. We’re the generation that has more understanding of earthquake risk than any other. And so we have a responsibility, as I see it, to start introducing sustainable, preparedness practices even if it doesn’t directly benefit us.

Because our children and grandchildren, they’re only more likely to experience an earthquake. If it doesn’t occur during our lifetime, it’s more likely to occur during their lifetime. And a preparedness culture is something we pass down, generation to generation. So I think that that’s the way we want to look at it. What can we do now to show our children and grandchildren how to be better prepared for an earthquake?

Danielle Ricci: So how can businesses and residents become earthquake-ready?

Steven Eberlein: We all know how to go camping, we just don’t feel ready for camping to come to us. And it’s getting to the psychological root of what’s going on. Camping seems very doable, that we willingly go to a remote place for an extended period of time without any services. We cook on grills, we figure out how to get our water and wash our dishes, and it’s doable. It’s a challenge that we willingly take on and that we even enjoy.

And the idea is that this is part of our culture, camping is part of a lot of American culture. And those same practices can be adapted for earthquake preparedness. The thing about earthquakes, you don’t know when they’re going to occur, you don’t know where you’re going to be when they occur.

But it is possible to be ready to camp in places that you’re going to find yourself, during an earthquake. And here’s the good news, I know where you’re going to be. You’re either going to be at home, work or in your car during an earthquake. Simple as that.

If you’re ready in your home, work and your car to spontaneously camp with the basic things you would need for any camping trip; such as water, a way to brush your teeth, a little bit of food, flashlights, emergency blankets, and just be as ready as you can be for an earthquake.

And, guess what? Wherever you live in the United States, even if you’re living in an earthquake zone, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to experience a number of other small disasters, that are also unforeseen, that might impact you before this big earthquake.

You’re going to have power outages, you’re going to have winter storms, you’re going to have flooding, you’re going to have the odd tornado here and there. And if you’re earthquake ready, it’s blanket preparedness. It’s the PhD level of preparedness that gets you ready for all the smaller events, that are going to occur before that earthquake occurs. But the earthquake, ultimately, is what’s going to have the greatest, lasting impact on our economy, eventually. Which is why I feel like we have to focus on the earthquake, as the mobilizing factor of preparedness.

Danielle Ricci: So how long do people need to be prepared for this “camping” mindset of preparedness?

Steven Eberlein: If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, FEMA is telling you that you need to be ready for – you ready for this? – two weeks. Why two weeks? Because of what an earthquake the size of the Cascadia Subduction Zone does to the infrastructure.

So, take this picture, you’ve got roughly 10 million people from Northern California, all the way up to Vancouver Island, Canada, that are impacted by the same earthquake at the same time.

That’s one problem – too many people across too big a geography. But the second major problem is that it’s going to take out the roads, it’s going to take out gas feeds, it’s going to take electricity, it’s going to take out telecommunications, it’s going to take out the airports, and it’s going to take out 90% of the fuel in Oregon alone. Because most of our fuel is sitting right on the bank of a river and it’s going to go into and contaminate the Willamette River, leaving us unable to even fuel the cars that we’re trying to power, for the rescue.

So when you, A, take that big a geography, that many people, and that big of an emergency, and then take away all of the services that rescuers are relying on, it gives you an idea of how much damage an earthquake can do. And how devastating a course it can be to a business, as well. It’s not just the number of people, but it is taking away the infrastructure that those people rely on, and that FEMA relies on, to respond to those people.

It’s a whole different ball game. So preparedness is smart no matter where you live in the country because things happen. And some of the biggest problems that are going to happen are the ones we don’t even see coming. So no matter where you live in the United States, preparedness just makes sense.

But if you live in an earthquake zone, preparedness is absolutely indispensable because of what I just said. I respect FEMA for being straight up with the Pacific North about realistic timelines for rescue.

Danielle Ricci: So what holds us back from adopting this preparedness culture?

Steven Eberlein: I think that we’ve struggled to see preparedness in a cultural context. So I see preparedness as a behavior. It’s not a recommendation, it’s a behavior. And where do we learn our behaviors?

Family, schools, friends, people that you personally know. We consider ourselves part of communities and we tend to emulate the behaviors that we see in our community because we want to feel part of that community.

Subconsciously, we mimic each other’s behaviors. So the places that are most ready for earthquakes are places that have had large earthquakes. Obviously, Japan and Chile are the most seismically prepared countries in the world because they’ve had large earthquakes. When a country has a large earthquake, of course, it triggers a private and a public sector response to get ready for the next big earthquake.

But here’s the thing that we don’t acknowledge – when a country has a large earthquake, it also creates a million stories from individuals just like you about our experience of the earthquake, our experience of the aftermath of that earthquake and we love shared experience.

Human beings are all about making ourselves understood through shared experiences. So I suspect that if you’re living in Chile, the places you’re learning your preparedness from, it’s not the equivalent of FEMA. You’re listening to grandma, you’re listening to your dad, you’re listening to your boss, you’re listening to people who have actually been part of a large earthquake experience and you’re learning those behaviors from them.

Right now, all that we have in many places in the United States, like the new New Madrid seismic zone in the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest is the knowledge of past earthquakes. We also have an understanding that this is an imminent risk, but we don’t have stories and we don’t see earthquake preparedness behaviors in each other, which puts us in the common sense gap.

Danielle Ricci: So what is the “Common Sense Gap”?

Steven Eberlein: The common sense gap is essentially the moment we have as a culture between A, learning about a big, big risk and B, actually changing our culture to adapt to that risk.

So take smoking, for example. I think we suspected that smoking was not good for us in the ’60s and ’70s, but when we learned that there was a cancer risk associated with smoking, did people quit smoking? No, they didn’t because we thought of ourselves as a smoking culture. Or when James Dean got into a fatal car accident, did we start calling for seatbelt laws and more seatbelts and car safety? No, we didn’t. That was not ingrained in our culture.

Essentially when we accept that there’s a big risk, but we don’t expect each other to do anything about that risk, that’s the common sense gap where our culture is working against what we individually know as good common sense.

The way that we bridge the common sense gap is by visually sharing our preparedness with each other. I think it’s really important to hear preparedness from someone you relate to. I think our responsibility is to provide accurate information for preparedness. I think people are effective at changing each other’s behaviors.

So that’s why I advocate preparing out loud, which is the practice of not only adopting preparedness but sharing your preparedness with others in the most visible and public way possible. Because if you’re in a community that’s due for an earthquake, everyone knows what they should do. I think most people know what they should be doing. But they’re not actually adopting that behavior. But when someone within that community has adopted the common sense behavior and we all know about it, that can be influential, especially if it’s from a surprising source, someone that you don’t expect.

I’ve had emergency managers ask me, “How do you change your office’s preparedness culture?” And I think that the first answer I have is, “Well, who’s the most well-liked person in your office?” You don’t need the biggest preparedness expert to be your leader. You need one of the most trusted, liked people in your office being an example for others. Because we are more likely to mimic a source that we trust, that we feel comfortable with, and that we respect.

Danielle Ricci: What are the first steps for businesses and their employees?

Steven Eberlein: Sure. Sure. So here’s the piece that I think we miss really, really frequently. When there’s a preparedness push within a business, when there’s a preparedness push at the governmental level, I think that we can sometimes forget how important personal preparedness is.

That what you’re actually asking people to do is change their lifestyle at home. You’re asking them to change the way they communicate with their children. You’re asking them to make an investment using their own money. I think that we need to realize what a big deal that is.

Preparedness isn’t easy. You’re asking people to make a lifestyle change. And if we’re going to ask that, at the business level or the public sector level, we need people walking the walk. So for example, if I run Acme Plumbing and I’m going to do a September month-long push for preparedness, I’m going to take pictures of the preparedness steps that I’ve taken.

I’m going to tell you something about the plan that I have with my wife to retrieve our children after a large event. I’m going to tell you about the evolution that I personally went through between not being prepared and being a prepared person.

You’ve got to normalize it. You’ve got to personalize it because you’re asking people to make a personal change. So I feel like it could be alienating when it’s any institute on high, either your boss telling you what to do or the government telling you what to do or scientists just scaring you. It can be alienating. Personalizing it completely changes the conversation because it shows that, “Listen, I’m not just the CEO of Acme Plumbing. I’m a dad. I’ve got a couple of kids, and I’ve got a mortgage to pay. And I realize or I’ve accepted that there’s a risk. And these are the changes that I have made to my own life to get ready.”

Does your boss need to be a preparedness expert? Absolutely not. What they need to be is an example. I want people to understand that no matter who you are, CEO of a company, just a regular person living in their neighborhood, you are influential for a set of people. You’re influential for your community on the topic of preparedness, but only if you are willing to talk about preparedness and show that you have actually taken action to prepare.

That’s how we learn behaviors from each other. It’s not through lecturing. It’s not through fear. It’s through a visible example of behavior, just what you would expect to see in Japan or Chile.

Danielle Ricci: Do you ever recommend that businesses do an emergency preparedness activity, like putting together emergency kits with their employees?

Steven Eberlein: So I encourage businesses to, first of all, support home-level preparedness. If you can do a kit build for your employees, where you bring a local preparedness agency in and build kits together and talk about kits for your home, that’s showing support for home preparedness. Employees appreciate it and feel like, “Wow. My employer actually cares that I’m ready at home.” That resonates. And from an employer standpoint, that’s smart.

That’s smart because A, your employees want to feel cared for, and B, you need your employees to be prepared at home because they are a part of your operational resilience. You can have a great plan that’s up on the shelf, but at the end of the day, if your employees find themselves unprepared at home after a big event, they’re not coming back to work, not tomorrow, not the next day.

They’ve got to get things in order on the home front before they’re going to return to work. And if they’re more prepared on the home front, they’re going to be more ready to come back to work, so any investment you make in home preparedness for your employees is going to pay dividends, both in employee loyalty and in your operational resilience post-event.

That’s part of the reason that businesses are central to the culture change, absolutely central to the culture change. Businesses have a bottom-line reason to get people prepared. If your people aren’t prepared at home, you’re less likely to stay in business. Simple as that.

So there’s a business motive to pushing preparedness. But secondly, every business is its own small culture. And the practices of your business, the culture that is built within your business can have reach into a person’s home. And that person can also have influence, a wider influence.

But I look at every business as a little culture in and of itself. And culture essentially being a set of expectations that we have of each other. If a business sets a preparedness expectation within the business that’s visible, it’s going to be more resilient. It’s also going to, even sometimes just implicitly, encourage home preparedness in a way that’s going to benefit the wider community.

Danielle Ricci: As emergency preparedness professionals, how do we start shifting our approach to emergency preparedness?

Steven Eberlein: If you’re in an earthquake zone, you know that there’s going to be shaking. Go into your office and start looking at your assets. Can you secure it to make sure that you don’t have that asset damaged or lost? Can it be insured?

The second thing are your suppliers. Am I reliant on just one supplier of a service that is also likely to experience the exact same hazard that I’m going to endure? If that’s the case, might there be a second supplier that you can start building a relationship with so that you’ve got a backup, just in case?

At the same time, be thinking about your employees and how you can build a culture of preparedness. You’ve got to walk the walk.

Danielle Ricci: How can companies test out this new mindset?

Steven Eberlein: I think some companies like to put together a continuity of operations (COOP) plan, and then they stop reviewing it. But if you’re not training and exercising your plan, your COOP plan’s not going to do you a lot of good, right? It needs to be drilled against.

If you’re in an earthquake zone, you’ve got to do earthquake drills. The first reason is because your brain in an emergency becomes a lot different than your brain is right now. And it’s hard to explain to people if they haven’t experienced it. But during a real emergency, your smart brain shuts down and your reptilian brain takes over. The only way you can get your dumb reptilian brain to do the right thing during an emergency is through repeated physical practice.

That’s why you have to do drop, cover, hold drills. It’s not just a matter of intellectually understanding, drop, cover, hold, it’s intellectually training your old reptilian brain, which is going to be in the driver’s seat during an emergency, to reflexively do the right thing.

And the other reason you have to do drop, cover, hold drills and fire drills is because there’s an entire social dynamic that is taking place during any emergency, where people are looking for leadership, and then the first clutch of people are looking to follow that leadership and the second clutch of people are following because they got permission from the first clutch of people to normalize and this is the response. And then finally that last clutch of people will go along with that drop, cover, hold drill or fire drill out of obligation.

Danielle Ricci: And why are these drills so important?

Steven Eberlein: We saw why this was so important during Sept. 11. Once you realize that this is an emergency, you’re really, really scared. So your brain’s working a lot differently. To ask people to evacuate, say 50 stories, down Tower One through a stairwell during an emergency is a lot to ask if they haven’t done it before.

Some people, when interviewed after Sept. 11 said, “I stalled because I’d never gone down that stairway.” It’s as simple as that. Familiarity with the route makes you feel more secure.

You either rise or fall to the example of those around you. We like to see ourselves as individuals and we are, to a degree. But when things are really uncertain and really scary it’s hard to do things alone.

And we are more likely to follow the example of what we see other people around us doing. We become more of a social organism. Which is just one more reason to do fire drills and earthquake drills because you’re trying to train not just the individual, but the social organism of how we, as a collective body, are going to react during this emergency.

Join Steven and Danielle as they help organizations better prepare for earthquakes in our new webinar, “Earthquake Preparedness: Key Strategies To Protect Your Business” at 11 a.m. EDT on Thursday, Oct. 18.