The Shakeout San Andreas Earthquake Scenario: Lessons Learned


On November 13, 2008, at 10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, the Operation Golden Guardian 2008/Great Southern California ShakeOut simulated exercise kicked off.1 This multivenue response to a simulated catastrophic earthquake involved local, state, and federal government agencies, including first responder agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. The hypothetical scenario was a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated large sections of eight counties stretching from the Mexico border to central California. The simulation represented the worst disaster in U.S. history, directly affecting 20 million people who live and work in the simulated quake-impact area.2 More than 5.2 million residents and 5,000 emergency responders participated in the simulation, making it the largest earthquake exercise in U.S. history.

The ShakeOut San Andreas Earthquake Scenario: Preparing for a Catastrophe

(1) Disruption of traffic routes, many simultaneous structure fires, ruptured water mains, and other factors will contribute to conflagrations in a major earthquake. (Photos by author.)

Click here to enlarge image

The exercise was conducted in two phases. Phase I: “Response” involved the various county, city, and state emergency operations centers (CEOC) and department operations centers (DOC) and all levels of command simulating the effects, challenges, and tasks associated with a 7.8 earthquake, based on the ShakeOut earthquake scenario. Phase I also tested “Onsite Incident Management,” the capability to effectively direct and control the incident using the Incident Command System (ICS)/National Incident Management System (NIMS). Multiple situations simulating responses to building collapses, urban conflagrations, hazmat releases, dam failures, multicasualty situations, and even a series of 30-foot tsunamis striking Catalina Island, part of Los Angeles County [covered by the Avalon Fire Department and two Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) stations] 26 miles off the mainland.

(2) Fire units conducting postquake damage surveys in the first minutes will be confronted by many simultaneous fires and other emergencies.

Phase II: “Recovery” involved recovery discussions simulating conditions 30 to 180 days after the earthquake (again, based on the ShakeOut earthquake scenario). This exercise tested the capabilities of California Emergency Operations Center management, animal health emergency support, emergency public information and warning, mass care (sheltering, feeding, and related services), economic and community recovery, fatality management, communications, and critical resource logistics and distribution.


Departments across Southern California conducted/participated in dozens of field exercises, including the following:

  • A mass-casualty simulation near Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills: The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) and a host of other agencies. Hundreds of volunteers acted as injured earthquake victims who had to be triaged; treated; transported to casualty collection points; sorted; and sent to definitive care by ambulance, fire department and National Guard helicopters, and other means.
  • A simulated quake-induced structure collapse and a hazardous materials release with dozens of casualties:The LACoFD. It was conducted at the Miller/Coors Brewery complex in Irwindale. LACoFD’s exercise facilitators went to the site a couple of days before the exercise to create simulated building collapse props and hazardous materials release simulations in parts of the sprawling facility and to assign volunteers their locations as simulated injured victims in various stages of entrapment. On the day of the exercise, LACoFD’s first-arriving Engine 48 conducted its simulated postquake jurisdictional damage survey, established command, and requested additional resources including fire/rescue helicopters, a battalion chief, engine and ladder truck companies, paramedic squads, a US&R company, a hazmat task force, and ambulances. LACoFD units, assisted by US&R Task Force 103, cut and tunneled their way into the collapses and began triaging, treating, rescuing, and transporting victims to a casualty collection point while Hazardous Materials Task Force 43 and the fire department’s Health Haz Mat unit dealt with a simulated chemical release.
  • A simulated structure collapse with multiple victims: Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Fire Station 88 in Sherman Oaks. This was an Operation Golden Guardian demonstration project and also a site viewed by participants in the Los Angeles International Earthquake Conference, which was held the same week. LAFD US&R task force members demonstrated cutting, lifting, breaching, technical search, canine search, heavy equipment selective debris removal, and other tactics used to locate and remove victims trapped in collapsed structures.

(3) As urban conflagrations spread, collapsed buildings with people trapped inside will become involved, forcing firefighters to make tough decisions.

  • A 10-hour multistructure collapse demonstration: The LACoFD and the new regional US&R task force, at its Del Valle Regional Training Center off Highway 126 in the Santa Clarita Valley. Dozens of volunteer “victims” had been positioned inside half a dozen structure collapse simulations; extensive operations were needed to locate and rescue them. This simulation tested the capability of California’s new 29-member regional US&R task force, which was designed to provide faster “boots on the ground” US&R teams that can go operational within minutes of activation and operational within minutes of arrival on the scene to augment the first-arriving fire and rescue units. A six-member Type I US&R company is incorporated into each of the state’s dozen regional US&R task forces (which are in addition to the eight Type I/Type III state/FEMA US&R task forces). The Type I US&R company provides the equipment the 29-person task force needs for the first operational period (up to 24 hours). US&R instructors and exercise coordinators had built at the Del Valle site several simulated collapsed buildings that needed triaging. As the exercise began, US&R Task Force 130 was dispatched alone to multiple collapses. After conducting a size-up and structure triage, it quickly recognized it needed the assistance of a “filled out” regional task force (23 personnel in addition to the six-member US&R Task Force 130) for longer-term and complicated extrications, possibly until the arrival of one or more Type I state/federal US&R task forces. On their staggered arrival, members of the regional US&R task force were assigned to critical tasks based on the strategic priorities.
  • A simulated structure collapse search and rescue operation: The Glendale Fire Department and other Glendale and Verdugo-area agencies. This exercise was conducted at the Area C Regional Training Center on East Glenoaks Boulevard. This mock collapse, with volunteers as trapped victims, helped evaluate how well US&R capabilities, firefighting, law enforcement security, public works, and utility agencies worked under a unified command.
  • The imminent failure (and eventual collapse of) Morris Dam in San Gabriel Canyon above Azusa: Azusa Fire Department, LACoFD, and the Azusa Police Department. This event necessitated the relocation of the city’s EOC and a mock emergency evacuation of the areas in the dam’s projected inundation zone.
  • A large-scale simulation that included operating the city’s EOC, evacuations, and triage and treatment of simulated victims:Huntington Park employees and LACoFD firefighters and paramedics.
  • The collapse of a science lab with injuries and a hazmat release: City of Sierra Madre.
  • Broad-based earthquake effects:The city of Whittier. The simulation included the following: (1) a major collapse of a high-rise residential building; (2) irreparable damage to two large hospitals, simulated irreparable damage that caused both hospitals to go out of service, necessitating that injured victims be diverted or treated in the casualty collection points and field hospitals; (3) a jet fuel pipeline rupture; (4) multiple water main breaks throughout the city; and (5) major structure fires within the city.


On November 13, real-life disasters disrupted the simulated earthquake as wind-driven fire storms developed that night and burned 200 homes in the “Tea Fire” that struck the city of Montecito (south of Santa Barbara, on the coast) just hours after the first round of earthquake exercises was completed. Within hours, many southern California fire departments had dispatched dozens of engine company strike teams, water-dropping helicopters, and other resources to the Montecito area fire. Two additional wildfires, on November 14 and 15, quickly spread to the urban interface. Before the weekend was over, more than 800 additional homes had burned in the San Fernando Valley and the tri-border between Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties. Thousands of firefighters and nearly all available resources were committed to these fires; yet, a thousand homes were lost.

During these actual conflagrations that struck the night of the exercise, firefighters faced the challenges of loss of water pressure in fire hydrants and the need to quickly find and use alternate sources of firefighting water; fire spreading from structure to structure under firestorm conditions; the need to employ aerial fire attack in residential areas within cities; the scarcity of firefighting resources, which were needed in multiple simultaneous locations; the shortage of personnel, necessitating massive amounts of mutual aid; and the potential for life loss from the fires.

On the other hand, these actual fires also demonstrated the robust capabilities of the southern California fire service. Under some of the most extreme fire weather conditions with tens of thousands of structures threatened by wind-driven fires, firefighters saved buildings and neighborhoods using aggressive, time-tested wildland and conflagration firefighting strategies and equipment.

(5) Urban search and rescue operations will continue around the clock for weeks after a catastrophic San Andreas earthquake.

One of the projected consequences of a 7.8 San Andreas Fault quake is that many simultaneous fires (more than 1,600) will grow into dozens of urban conflagrations, overtaxing fire departments that will also be dealing with thousands of building collapses with many trapped victims, hazardous materials releases, and more than 100,000 injuries.3 Such a situation will require expanded strategies that include interstate mutual aid. Los Angeles fire chiefs and other fire service leaders are reviewing such strategies.


All exercises are somewhat hollow unless there is a valid After Action Report (AAR) or some other means of capturing important lessons learned by the participants, controllers, and observers. Equally important is translating the lessons learned into actions that will improve the systems, equipment, training, response mechanisms, policies, and other capabilities. As of this writing, exercise participants, including the counties involved, California’s Office of Emergency Service and its Office of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), some of the nongovernmental organizations, and the involved cities, fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and school districts are preparing AARs. The various “operational areas” (regionally consolidated groups of response agencies collaborating for the same goal) in Southern California are cooperatively consolidating some of these reports.

Among the fire service-related lessons learned during the combined Golden Guardian 2008/ShakeOut exercises are the following:

  • Emergency responders must be prepared to protect themselves and their equipment when an earthquake occurs so they can begin immediate life-saving and property-saving operations when the shaking stops. Initially, that means adopting and practicing the standard Drop, Cover, and Hold On protocols for earthquake-prone regions (see and for details). It also includes training personnel on how to avoid being crushed by apparatus bouncing around the apparatus rooms during earthquakes. Some fire stations in Los Angeles County have waist-high rubber marks on the walls of their apparatus rooms caused by the bouncing of fire engines during major quakes.
  • Robust, multitiered emergency and disaster response systems allow firefighters to manage a wide range of disasters. By the same token, a self-sufficient population allows responders to concentrate on the larger and more time-critical issues that need formal assistance in the aftermath of a disaster. This speaks to the need for emergency responders to plan and prepare themselves, their families, and the public they serve.
  • Many fire departments need to review and update their earthquake policies, practices, and protocols if they are to be ready for earthquakes that result in damage and fires that exceed “normal” disasters. Departments in quake-prone zones that do not have an earthquake plan should develop one.
  • Fire departments and other public safety agencies in severe quake-prone areas should develop a Catastrophic Earthquake Pre-Event Incident Action Plan (IAP) that will also serve as a preplan for the anticipated response to a catastrophic-level earthquake. The IAP should provide for the following:
    —An effective Unified (Area) Command that is consistent with the National Response Framework (including the International Assistance Annex when needed).
    —Alternate communications plans when all or most normal communications have been damaged or interrupted.
    —A catastrophic event traffic plan (to facilitate mutual-aid ingress and egress, transportation of materials and victims, and other related functions).
    —Specialized resources (hazmat, EMS, US&R, for example).
    —Logistics needs for long-term operations.

  • There is an advantage to establishing an early warning system (for example, P-Wave detectors with the potential for integrating early warning systems like California’s Integrated Seismic Network to warn of an incoming earthquake). In places distant from the epicenter, tens or even dozens of seconds of warning would allow fire station doors to be opened before the damaging waves strike. This would enable fire and rescue apparatus to be pulled out of the stations immediately after the shaking, preventing the vehicles from becoming trapped in fire stations with racked structures. Also, firefighters and rescuers would be able to get to the safest locations for riding out the quake and then quickly responding to the inevitable emergencies that will occur.
  • Fire departments need business continuity plans to maintain fire and rescue agency operations following disasters.
  • Fire departments in quake-prone regions should conduct department-specific fire station and administrative site earthquake resistance surveys to determine immediate personnel hazards that may not be evident, the need for capital improvement planning and funding, and whether temporary measures can be implemented.
  • Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and Convergent Responders in Post-Quake Operations teams should be in place and supported.
  • Fire departments in quake-prone urban areas should test and evaluate current postquake urban conflagration strategies during future earthquake simulations and exercises. They should develop or clarify postearthquake operational priorities and strategies; assume widespread water supply interruption and limited water resources after major quakes; and test the use of alternative water supplies including blue water sources (lakes, ponds, rivers, and the ocean).
  • Where postquake urban conflagrations are possible, develop or review and update postquake fire control plans, protocols, and practices based on a study of “best practices” for ground-based and aerial fire attack on postquake urban conflagrations. Train firefighters and officers in “best practice” strategies and tactics for control of urban conflagrations following earthquakes and other disasters that knock out normal fire suppression systems.
  • There’s a need to research and develop protocols for urban conflagration aerial attack (rotary and fixed-wing) to slow or confine urban conflagrations that are overwhelming ground forces. Because this kind of urban aerial firefight is so rare, there may be strong differences of opinion across the nation about how that might look in the next major urban conflagration that threatens to level entire cities.
  • There’s a need to test and evaluate current structural collapse search and rescue operations awareness and capabilities during future earthquake exercises (as well as plans to request additional US&R resources appropriate to the department’s likely collapse problems).

  • The Golden Guardian exercise highlighted the need to update and conduct first responder collapse training for all firefighters and officers in quake-prone zones. Just a little more than 20 years ago when the Whittier earthquake shook Southern California, most of the nation (certainly most places west of the Mississippi River) had virtually no formalized collapse search and rescue response systems in place. Today, the United States has what is arguably the most sophisticated local, county, and state urban search and rescue systems in the world, supported by FEMA’s national US&R response system, which includes 28 70-person teams strategically located and deployable anywhere in the United States within hours; also, many states have state-sponsored US&R task forces. Today, many local firefighters are trained to respond to the full range of structure-collapse situations that can be expected in an earthquake and to request the appropriate resources to conduct nonstop, round-the-clock search and rescue operations for as long as it takes to locate and rescue trapped victims after an earthquake. Our domestic US&R system is further backed by a system of US&R teams in other nations that can be requested if needed. The United States, under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) fields two of those international teams.4 Even so, the number of structure collapses across Southern California anticipated by the ShakeOut scenario will challenge all available rescue systems.
  • All firefighters and officers (earthquakes or not) should have a working understanding of the national standard collapse/US&R Search Marking System (click on to review). Whether the disaster is a hurricane, a tornado, a landslide, a flood, a terrorist attack, or whatever, understanding the Search Marking System is essential. FEMA and other agencies are evaluating a new Search Marking Sticker System, which has proved itself when tested in the responses to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike).
  • In regions where disaster or catastrophe is possible, there’s a need to establish protocols and training for Casualty/Community Collection Points (CCP) in situations where “normal” multicasualty systems will be overwhelmed because local hospitals are collapsed or otherwise out of service. It would be helpful to identify predesignated CCPs in your agency’s jurisdiction by station/region and also to preassemble a medical supply cache for CCPs. The U.S. paramedic and other emergency prehospital care systems are without parallel; we have one of the most elaborate systems to care for victims of disasters, including treating those still trapped. Also, local and federal deployable medical teams, including those from the National Disaster Medical System, back up the local systems in a disaster. However, the number of injuries—easily more than 100,000 expected in a magnitude 7.8 quake on the southern San Andreas fault—may be overwhelming initially and will require a massive response.
  • The importance of rapid and accurate postearthquake assessment and reporting cannot be overemphasized. This is true of any major disaster.


The ShakeOut earthquake scenario and the Golden Guardian exercise tested and improved our ability to manage catastrophic-level disasters. The scenario painted a dark portrait of the most likely consequences of a magnitude 7.8 quake on the southern section of the San Andreas Fault and the challenges that will confront responders. You can follow the progress of all these continuing efforts at and


1. A detailed explanation of how this simulated exercise was planned and its intended goals are presented in “The ShakeOut San Andreas Earthquake Scenario: Preparing for a Catastrophe,” Larry Collins, Fire Engineering, September 2008, 75-83.

2. The exercise was based on the study The ShakeOut Scenario, which describes the most likely consequences of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in the southern section of the San Andreas Fault. The entire report can be downloaded at (USGS Open-File Report 2008-1150;

The exercise was also based on the seminal study A Note on Fire Following Earthquake for the Southern San Andreas Fault M 7.8 Earthquake (SoSAFE) Scenario by Charles Skawthorne, S.E., SPA, Risk LLC, Berkeley, CA 94708, for the United States Geological Survey, Pasadena, CA, February 14, 2007.

3. These projections are based on Charles Skawthorne’s A Note on Fire Following Earthquake for the Southern San Andreas Fault M 7.8 Earthquake (SoSAFE) Scenario.

4. The two U.S.-based international US&R task forces are from the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department and the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department. They work under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

LARRY COLLINS is a 29-year member of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD); a captain; and a USAR specialist and paramedic assigned to US&R Task Force 103, which responds to technical rescues and multialarm fires. He is a search team manager for LACoFD’s FEMA/OFDA US&R Task Force for domestic and international response and serves on the FEMA US&R Incident Support Team, with deployments to the Oklahoma City bombing; the 9-11 Pentagon collapse; Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Gustav, and Ike; and several National Security events. He has had published many articles in Fire Engineering since 1989 and is the author of the< Technical Rescue Operations textbook series (Fire Engineering: Vol. I, 2004, Vol. II, 2005) and the Rescue chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II

No posts to display