‘Triangle of Life’

Disaster experts debate three vastly different approaches to what people should do during an earthquake

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 3/11/2010

Following major earthquakes in different regions of the world, three explanations of what to do if you are in a building during an earthquake have emerged.
But which is the best approach?
The traditional way of thinking on the subject, the one that is taught to schoolchildren across the country, says we should get under desks, tables or any object that offers some protection above our heads. This approach also advises us to find doorways to stand under until the shaking stops.
However, Douglas Copp, a rescuer, is challenging that theory and rejects the advice of traditional disaster experts. Having climbed into 875 buildings in 60 countries to help find disaster victims, he has shared his observations and findings, including what he calls the “triangle of life” — the space next to objects such as desks, chairs and beds, where Copp suggests we take refuge when the earth starts to tremble. 
Traditional suggestions of getting under desks and standing in doorways actually lead to more deaths, according to Copp, rescue chief and disaster manager of the American Rescue Team International (ARTI). Based on his experience, Copp argues that people will be safer if they get next to those objects and into the triangle of life, where they will be protected from falling debris, according to an article by Copp on ARTI’s Web site called “Earthquake Tips.”
“The larger the object, the stronger, the less it will compact,” wrote Copp. “The less the object compacts, the larger the void, the greater the probability that the person who is using this void for safety will not be injured. The next time you watch collapsed buildings on television, count the triangles you see formed. They are everywhere. It is the most common shape you will see in a collapsed building.”
He claims that almost everyone who simply ducks and covers when buildings collapse is crushed to death, as are people who get under objects and stand in doorways.
Several disaster experts dispute Copp’s findings and claim his suggestions are not scientifically based.
Ricky Lopes, American Red Cross manager of Community Disaster Education, said the American Red Cross’s suggestion of “duck, cover and hold on,” which includes getting under a heavy object, is based on building codes in the United States, and he maintains that technique has saved lives.
Copp wants his triangle of life approach, based on an experiment he conducted in Turkey, adopted by the world’s nations, most of which use International Building Codes published by the International Code Commission for worldwide distribution and sales. These codes are different from what is traditionally used throughout the United States.
Copp’s recommendations, said Lopes, are “inaccurate for application in the United States and inconsistent with information developed through earthquake research.”
Dr. Marla Petal, director of the Bogazici University, Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute’s Disaster Preparedness Education Program in Turkey, acknowledges that there are voids, or triangles of life, next to objects after an earthquake. But in a published article responding to Copp’s claims, titled “The Need for an Evidence-Basis for Earthquake Survival Tips,” Petal argued that “the force of earthquakes moves large and heavy objects. We don’t know whether it is possible to anticipate where the life-safe voids will be before the collapse or whether it is possible to get there during the strong shaking of an earthquake.” 
In other words, it is impossible to predict where those spaces will be because those objects, like everything else, move during an earthquake.
Petal’s doctoral research focused on the causes of death during the Aug. 17, 1999, Kocaeli Earthquake in Turkey, as well as the implications of those findings for public education outreach.
The third approach comes from Dr. Michio Kaku, a famous and prolific theoretical physicist. Appearing on Geraldo Rivera’s show on FOX Television, Kaku said that during an earthquake, people should simply run. And if they can’t get out of a building, they should not stand in doorways or get under objects. As an alternative, Kaku suggested the triangle of life approach, which has been getting more public attention since evidence from recent earthquakes in Chile, Haiti and China has shown that people who did what they were told — got under objects and stood in doorways — were killed or maimed. 
According to Petal, however, Copp’s claims are “extreme hypotheses” that need to be tested. 
“Even the best scientific methods don’t always provide perfect or even helpful results,” wrote Petal. “Nevertheless, scientific methods should be used to investigate our hunches. There are many important questions that we haven’t begun to answer, but absolute claims like this are just total rubbish and no substitute.”
Copp bases his advice on an experiment in 1996 co-organized by ARTI, the Turkish government, the city of Istanbul and the University of Istanbul, in which they filmed a “practical, scientific test.”
“We collapsed a school and a home with 20 mannequins inside. Ten mannequins did ‘duck and cover’ and 10 mannequins I used in my ‘triangle of life’ survival method. After the simulated earthquake collapse, we crawled through the rubble and entered the building to film and document the results. The film, in which I practiced my survival techniques under directly observable, scientific conditions relevant to building collapse, showed there would have been zero percent survival for those doing ‘duck and cover.’”
Copp claims there would likely have been 100 percent survival for those using the triangle of life method.
Petal, however, noted in her response that this was not a scientific experiment and that its organizers did not simulate an earthquake, but rather rammed columns and caused the building to pancake.
“Earthquakes come in waves,” she wrote. “They cause lateral shaking. They cause a variety of different kinds of damage. Since this experiment didn’t produce anything resembling shaking, it really doesn’t tell us anything at all about what would happen during an earthquake. It could be that the large and heavy furniture would end up at the other end of the room, nowhere near where it began.”
The truth is there’s only so much we can do when we are caught off-guard inside a building in an earthquake. So far, no single approach seems to be a fail-safe method for everyone to utilize in every situation. Survivability depends on several circumstances, including the magnitude of the quake, the type of building a person is in and the building codes used during construction, the size of objects in the room and access to medical resources. 
New evidence emerges with each quake, but one thing experts can agree on is that these methods need to be tested further using science to determine their applicability.