Lessons in earthquake preparedness

If Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools are prepared for a major earthquake, they have the accreditation requirements of BJE-Builders of Jewish Education, an umbrella organization for local Jewish education, in large part to thank.

BJE helps schools develop earthquake safety measures and gives them accreditation when they demonstrate, among other things, a concern for student safety. 

Determining emergency procedures is part of the schools’ accreditation process, according to Miriam Prum Hess, director of BJE’s centers for excellence in day school education. 

For example, at Sinai Akiba Academy, the school for Sinai Temple in Westwood, which has both a preschool and kindergarten through eighth grade in the day school and is located at the busy intersection of Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards, approximately 1,000 students and staff are on campus on any given weekday. Emergency drills for both school and synagogue have to be run with absolute efficiency, synagogue executive director Howard Lesner said. 

“We all have radio contacts, overseeing it, making sure the entire building is completely empty, and people have to report on the radio when they’ve arrived and every student is accounted for,” he said. “I oversee what goes on with the triage, and basically my job is to oversee the entire evacuation process.”

“You’re talking about 480 kids out of the day school, 150 out of the preschool and 300 staff members,” he said.

Ilan Ramon Day School is at the opposite end of the spectrum in many ways. Serving approximately 150 students, the Agoura Hills school is located in a community of mountains, urban sprawl and stables. Despite the school’s smaller size and quieter suburban setting, its students participate in earthquake drills every few weeks. The school also takes part every year in the Great California ShakeOut, a statewide earthquake drill that draws the participation of millions of people from schools, workplaces and elsewhere, according to shakeout.org.

“The basic message if the ground is moving: You drop and cover and you hold on,” said Yuri Hronsky, Ilan Ramon’s head of school. “Cover as much of your body as possible, and hold whatever you can hold onto.”

Lesner referred to these exercises as “drop drills,” in which students protect their heads and necks while crouching underneath their desks. 

Earthquake safety experts agree these drills are best practice. The Earthquake Country Alliance, which works with the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC toward mitigating earthquake damage, refers to them as “Drop, Cover and Hold On.” 

Of course, there is more to earthquake preparation than drills. 

BJE, for instance, recommends that schools have advance communication technology, which can take many forms, such as auto-dial messaging, Hess said. This allows a school to simultaneously contact everybody on a list.

“We record one message, and with the push of one button, it either sends out a text or sends out a call to any number of stakeholders,” Hess said.

This technology is critical, although some places still rely on the old-fashioned buddy system. 

Temple Adat Elohim (TAE), which runs an early childhood center and a religious school in Thousand Oaks, recognizes that phone systems don’t always work the way we want them to: During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, long-distance calls were easier to make than local ones.

Therefore, TAE’s emergency system is to relay messages to a synagogue in Galveston, Texas,  Temple B’nai Israel, which has agreed to convey emergency messages if needed to community members who are not at the shul and are unable to make contact.  

“It was decided that we would establish an out-of-the-area contact point for our temple to call to let them know that everything is OK at TAE,” executive director Aliza Goland said in an e-mail.

Many schools have such relationships with other out-of-state communities, Hess said.

Staying on top of communication is important, but it is not the only concern. Well-stocked earthquake kits offer another preparation tool.

“Water, flashlights, normal things that you’d find in any earthquake kit that even homes and other businesses have,” said Sinai Temple’s Lesner, describing the contents of the kits there. 

“We change it over every few years when it expires. It’s not gourmet, but it certainly, in the event of an emergency, would sustain people,” he said.

Meanwhile, at Ilan Ramon, educators don’t need to worry about alarming their students. They understand that earthquakes are a fact of life in Los Angeles, Hronsky said.

“We live in California, and our kids are pretty in tune to this stuff.