Eight Years Later: Lessons from the Northridge Earthquake


Eight years ago, fire/rescue agencies in California were reminded of the reasons earthquakes remain a vexing problem in seismically active regions. On January 17, 1994, the Northridge earthquake took dozens of lives and earned the reputation as the most costly disaster in U.S. history up to that time. It also served notice that the fire and rescue services should prepare for the far more deadly and costly earthquakes that may be looming on the horizon in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Seattle, Alaska, along the New Madrid Fault Zone, and in other seismically active U.S. regions.

RELATED: Our August 1994 Issue Covering the Northridge Earthquake

Exactly one year after the Northridge Earthquake, on January 17, 1995, an earthquake in Kobe, Japan, reminded modern cities of their vulnerability to these devastating natural disasters. That day, Los Angeles residents prepared to mark the Northridge quake anniversary with candlelight processions and various other ceremonies. One particularly somber service was scheduled to begin in front of the Northridge Meadows Apartment complex at 4:31 a.m., the exact time the Northridge quake struck 12 months earlier. The collapse of the Meadows apartments killed 17 people, seriously injured dozens, and trapped several victims for hours before they were rescued by City of Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters, the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD) USAR company, and two FEMA USAR Task Forces from the LACoFD and Riverside, California.

As more than 500 Angelenos gathered in front of the Northridge Meadows in the predawn hours of January 17, 1995, word spread that a major quake had just struck the Japanese city of Kobe. Initial reports were sketchy, but it seemed that a disaster of major proportions had occurred in Japan.

Throughout the day, Americans watched scenes of massive destruction televised live from Kobe. As conflagrations marched across the city, the death toll climbed into the hundreds. The irony of the situation was not lost on Los Angeles firefighters. Many of the same lessons from the Northridge quake were being relearned in darkness half a world away.


Many lessons learned in Northridge can be traced to the 1971 Sylmar quake (6.5 magnitude), which devastated parts of the San Fernando Valley and killed dozens of people. Since that 1971 disaster, various agencies across California—in association with the state’s Seismic Safety Commission—were engaged in a campaign to upgrade earthquake-resistant construction codes, educate the public, and improve statewide capabilities to manage the consequences of seismic events.

The 1980s heralded a pioneering program sponsored by the California State Fire Marshals Office (and partially funded by a FEMA grant) to develop a model for “heavy rescue” training within the California fire/rescue services. The result was the weeklong Rescue Systems I course, recently adopted by the National Fire Academy.

Efforts to improve collapse rescue capabilities intensified in the wake of the deadly 1987 Whittier earthquake in eastern Los Angeles County, where building collapse search and rescue was identified as an area in which many local and state response agencies were found to be wanting. The Whittier disaster prompted the sprouting and rapid development of new and more comprehensive heavy rescue capabilities in California, especially in the Greater Los Angeles region. It was around this time that the term urban search and rescue, or USAR, came into prominence among the fire/rescue services.

Urban search and rescue was once again identified as a weak link in local, state, and national response systems after the Loma Prieta earthquake and Hurricane Hugo in 1989. FEMA was directed to develop a national USAR system to provide more timely and effective assistance to state and local agencies confronted by overwhelming search and rescue needs at collapsed buildings and other major entrapment situations. One result was a FEMA contract with the National Association for Search and Rescue for help in coordinating the creation of a network of 26 strategically located FEMA USAR task forces, each capable of deploying anywhere in the nation within hours of a disaster. Today, there are 28 FEMA USAR task forces strategically located across the United States, 26 of which were deployed to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Eleven conducted search and rescue operations at the Oklahoma City Bombing. All have been deployed to other disasters across the nation.

It seems that these efforts were prophetic, for when the Northridge quake struck with a magnitude of 6.7, the newly established USAR systems proved highly effective in mobilizing teams of highly trained and equipped rescuers to locate and extricate victims from collapsed buildings. Furthermore, other earthquake preparedness measures, such as fire department earthquake plans, proved their worth by giving firefighters the tools to rapidly mitigate potential conflagrations, treat thousands of injured people, and provide a wide array of other public safety services in a timely and effective manner.

Yet, even with these advanced capabilities in place, the Northridge quake sprung many surprises that have sobered many experts who know that additional (and more powerful) earthquakes are almost certain to challenge—if not overwhelm—some of these systems in the future.

Following are some of the most valuable lessons gleaned from the Northridge Earthquake, from the perspective of firefighters and other rescue professionals.


The process of ensuring that your agency is prepared to manage the consequences of a major earthquake begins with a realistic evaluation of the potential for damage from local seismic events. This process would include an accurate assessment of local seismic hazards; an estimate of the level of destruction to buildings and infrastructure that may be expected from local quakes; the potential for secondary events such as major landslides, tsunamis, and dam failures; the potential for conflagrations; and an estimate of any other events that might have an impact on emergency operations.

Understanding Seismicity

The Northridge quake taught us that effective earthquake plans depend on emergency planners and other decision makers— (especially those responsible for urban search and rescue, firefighting, hazardous materials, and multicasualty operations) having a basic understanding of the local seismic hazards, including the location, frequency, and magnitude of earthquakes that may be expected from the rupture of local faults. Just as a firefighter should understand basic fire science to accurately anticipate (and respond to) the behavior of fire, so should the fire/rescue professional understand enough about seismology to link ground motion with possible damage to the community (and therefore be better prepared to manage those consequences).

The Northridge quake demonstrated an acute need to develop closer working relationships (and to improve information sharing) among seismologists, fire/rescue professionals, and emergency planners. This is especially evident when one considers the rate at which new seismic hazards are being discovered. For example, the Northridge quake occurred on a buried thrust fault whose presence was not even known until it ruptured nine miles beneath the surface of the San Fernando Valley. In the wake of Northridge, seismologists have discovered (or postulated) the presence of many more buried thrust faults—some of which appear to be capable of delivering even more devastating blows to densely populated areas—beneath the surface of Greater Los Angeles. In fact, it is now recognized that hidden thrust faults are a major cause of the tortured topography found in parts of Southern California, and they may represent nearly as great a danger to the large cities as other well-known features like the San Andreas Fault.

Local universities and geological or seismic research centers, state geological and seismic agencies, and the National Geological Survey can provide this type of important seismological information. An example of interdisciplinary collaboration is Southern California, where LACoFD urban search and rescue specialists have developed close contacts with seismologists from the California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California (through the Southern California Earthquake Center), to ensure that earthquake planning and training are consistent with the true seismic hazards. This program is helping members of the local fire/rescue services to better understand the forces that drive the seismic disasters that periodically strike Southern California. This relatively new partnership will enhance the planning process for the earthquakes that are certain to strike the region. The old adage “know your enemy” (in this case the consequences of ground fault rupture) is appropriate.

This collaboration has also helped seismologists to better understand the needs of emergency responders—the probabilities of future seismic events and their possible magnitude, advanced warning systems, rapid identification of the location, and magnitude of ground fault rupture so resources can be quickly deployed, for example. We are finding that seismologists and other earth scientists can enhance the ability of fire/rescue agencies to react to earthquakes if they understand how the fire/rescue services operate and our needs in the aftermath of a damaging earthquake.

Recently, members of the LACoFD and other emergency planners jointly evaluated a newly developed system known as Shake Map. Under the system, hundreds of ground motion detectors have been arrayed in strategic locations across Southern California so that the areas of greatest shaking (and where the worst effects may continue to occur during subsequent aftershocks) can be identified within minutes of a quake. If the system works as intended, it will greatly assist fire departments, police departments, utility companies, and other response agencies to prioritize the areas that need immediate assessment of physical damage and to stage/deploy resources. In the future, this system may even be linked with various types of geo-files and even satellite photography to expedite post-quake damage assessment and real-time evaluation of emergency conditions. Expanded interaction between fire departments and seismologists in other parts of the nation may yield similar benefits.

Understanding Potential Engineering Consequences

In some circles there is an adage that goes “Earthquakes don—t kill people; structures (that fail during earthquakes) kill people.” Francis Brannigan, author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1993), tells firefighters: “The building is your enemy,” referring to the frequency with which firefighters are killed by collapsing buildings on the fireground. This warning applies also to earthquake response. Without a solid understanding of how the earthquake forces may have damaged structures, fire and rescue professionals will be handicapped in their efforts to locate and remove trapped victims and to extinguish fires in potentially quake-damaged structures.

Unfortunately, this is a relatively new field of research, and earthquake engineering is not yet an exact science. For example: steel-frame mid-rise buildings for years were considered to be among the most quake-resistant structures. They were engineered to flex (and therefore avoid failure) during earthquakes, but the Northridge Earthquake revealed unexpected weaknesses in the connections that hold these steel-frame buildings together. The problem was discovered almost accidentally after the Northridge Earthquake when building inspectors began noticing cracks in hidden welds that connected critical steel components in some buildings that exhibited unexpected signs of damage in the days and weeks following the quake. The cracking of these welds had grave implications: Some of the buildings had been brought unexpectedly close to partial or total failure by the main shock and aftershocks of the Northridge quake. The resulting damage meant that some steel-frame buildings might be extremely vulnerable to another large quake and might even fail during a moderate earthquake because critical welds would be unable to resist the extreme flexing that might occur. Additional research was conducted, and retrofit strategies were developed.


Preparation may include developing a comprehensive urban search and rescue program. You cannot do this with a patch-quilt approach. You must make a sincere, ongoing commitment, and you must do it long before an earthquake strikes. When establishing a USAR program, ensure that it will enhance your department’s ability to fight fires and manage daily technical rescue incidents. In many cases, these tasks are closely related, and you will get the most for your investment.


  • Develop and maintain an Earthquake Plan that will be constantly updated. It should include the following:


–a disaster communications plan (keep it simple).

–an immediate survey of the damage to the district’s critical structures (dams, hospitals, and so on), including aerial surveys conducted by firefighters, chief officers, and USAR personnel.

–a policy that states emergency action should not be taken until the jurisdictional survey has been completed except for immediate life-saving or conflagration-preventing actions (to prevent engine companies and other units from committing themselves to the first fire or rescue they come across). Completing the survey must remain a top priority because responders may have to address more serious situations that may be occurring elsewhere.

–command modes (battalion command, fire station district command, area command, for example).

–the ability to make informed decisions about structural integrity for purposes of district survey and rescue; this requires personnel trained and experienced in USAR.

–a standard for marking damaged structures (based on international USAR building marking) as well as requirements that engines, trucks, and other units carry the materials necessary to make the markings (fluorescent orange or red spray paint, constructions crayons, and the like).

–access to lumber, tools, generators, lighting, and other equipment from local vendors during disaster rescue operations. Every fire station and rescue team should have a plan.

–the accommodations to feed and shelter firefighters and rescue personnel for extended periods. [The LACoFD provides MREs (meals ready to eat), water, and GatoradeT to all its units to ensure that field personnel will be able to operate around the clock without the need for a supply of food or water in the first couple of days after a major disaster. Every fire station stocks MREs and water to ensure nonstop firefighting, search, and rescue operations.]

–a plan that requires off-duty firefighters and emergency personnel to report to work after ensuring the safety of their families. LACoFD firefighters and officers are required annually to sign a written agreement specifying that they will report to duty immediately after ensuring their family’s safety and that they will remain at their posts until properly relieved, at which time they will check on their families and then immediately return to duty. This may seem like a draconian measure, but it has been in place for more than a decade. It makes absolutely clear each member’s responsibilities in the aftermath of a major earthquake or other disaster.

–a plan for continuously updating personnel with critical information during disaster operations. Where is the epicenter? Where is the worst damage? How are other areas faring? This may help relieve responders— anxieties by informing them of conditions at home.

–a plan to relieve on-duty members so they may ensure the welfare of their families.

–a plan to request and use mutual-aid resources and special assistance from city, county, state, and federal governments.


  • Assume the infrastructure will be disrupted (ruptured gas and water mains), which will create extra hazards and require extra precautions.
  • Check target hazards (such as dams, hospitals, and schools) for damage continually when aftershocks occur.
  • Use aerial reconnaissance for damage assessment and command and control.
  • Assess firefighting and rescue preattack plans. Damaged buildings may require a rule of “absolutely no entry” for firefighting except for life-saving operations. Remember that firefighting systems (automatic sprinklers, for example) may be knocked out. High-life-hazard structures with damaged fire systems may require 24-hour fire watch or evacuation. Some commercial processes and occupancies may need to be closed down until repairs can be made.
  • Initiate immediately requests for special resources such as FEMA USAR task forces as soon as their need becomes evident. When requesting special resources, give specific information (location, type of rescue, number of potential victims, other hazards, resources on scene, transportation routes, liaison with local incident commander, and so on). Many agencies do not anticipate the need for these special resources until it is too late, and often there is hesitation. (Who is authorizing this? Who is paying for it?) Work out these details before the quake hits. As demonstrated in several recent disasters, the public is less likely to forgive local officials— unwillingness to request outside help in the face of obvious need, especially if the result is delayed or botched rescue operations.
  • Instruct company and chief officers in how to recognize situations that may require special resources for rescue (FEMA USAR task forces, cranes, search dogs, and so on). This type of training should be part of the training component when developing local USAR capabilities.



  • City, county, state, and private structure engineer evaluations of structural safety must be consistent with each another. Firefighters and other emergency responders should conduct them in accordance with a standard format that is easily understood. Rescue personnel need to know if the structure is safe to enter for rescue and firefighting.
  • Work closely with state offices of emergency services to ensure that proper help will be available as soon as it is requested.
  • Unless fires are causing life-threatening conflagrations, specify that rescue operations are the highest initial priority so that the greatest number of lives may be saved. Unless wind, wood-shake roofs, and other exposure problems exist, many structural fires will burn themselves out eventually. Commit firefighters to nonthreatening fires after live rescue operations have been completed.
  • If water mains are ruptured, request sufficient water tenders to supply water for firefighting. Consider establishing fire attack task forces (two engines and a water tender).
  • Keep special resources (truck companies, USAR units, and so on) available for rescue and fires that require their capabilities.
  • After major earthquakes and other disasters, firefighters and other emergency responders will be busy with many emergency duties and distractions. The Earthquake Plan should be as consistent with normal operations as possible to avoid confusion and unnecessary interruptions to service (have a clear policy on disaster radio frequencies and other important functions).



  • Large rescue operations such as the collapse of hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings may require tremendous commitments of personnel and equipment. Be prepared for long-term, nonstop, multiday (or multiweek) operations, as in the case of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Victims have survived in collapsed buildings for as long as 16 days. Do not allow incident commanders to call off search and rescue operations until all potential void spaces have been physically searched for victims. Rely on the special knowledge of USAR trained personnel, members of FEMA USAR task forces, and the FEMA USAR incident support teams that generally precede them and always support them.
  • Search and rescue in collapsed wood-frame and lightweight construction structures can often be completed with common rescue tools (chain saws, axes, pike poles, carpet knives, circular saws, and so on). These operations may be conducted by first responders and USAR personnel using standard USAR techniques, with support from FEMA USAR task forces and other specialized resources.
  • Because of the number of potentially survivable void spaces, it may take days to complete search operations of collapsed large apartment complexes, parking structures, churches, schools, hospitals, office buildings, and other high-rise occupancy buildings.
  • Search and rescue operations in collapsed concrete structures may take days or weeks because of the extreme danger posed by aftershocks and the moving of large structural members during search and rescue operations. The hardening of buildings against earthquakes, bomb blasts, wind, and other forces may prevent some collapses. However, when these buildings do collapse, it may be more difficult to penetrate them to conduct search and rescue operations. The Northridge and Kobe Earthquakes clearly demonstrated this, as did the September 11 attack on the Pentagon. Even steel-frame buildings cause tremendous problems when they collapse, as we have seen in the case of the World Trade Center towers.



  • Victims trapped for extended periods of time require treatment during entrapment to save lives. Firefighters, paramedics, physicians, and other rescuers must be trained in confined space EMS, crush syndrome, compartment syndrome, and other medical problems common to earthquakes. Trapped patients must have IVs and other treatment if rescue will take extended periods, or you may find that you have wasted valuable time rescuing a patient who will nevertheless die, even though it was preventable.
  • Interagency cooperation is mandatory in a disaster. Victims awaiting assistance do not care what color the uniform is. Work out differences by training and networking ahead of time.


Metaphorically speaking, the lives of citizens in the disaster zone may be as fractured as the earthquake fault that caused the disaster. In the interest of customer service, fire departments and other providers must be present and give support and assistance. Fire departments and other public service providers can perform vital services long after the rescues have been completed and fires have been extinguished. The public will remember small acts of assistance and kindness long into the future.

This article is dedicated to members of the Fire Department of New York, the New York Police Department, the New York Port Authority, other public safety members, and the thousands of innocent citizens who lost their lives in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11, 2001. It is also dedicated to the memory of FDNY Deputy Chief Ray Downey, from whom I learned so much about rescue over the years and with whom I had the honor of working in the FEMA USAR program and teaching “Managing Rescue Operations” at the Fire Department Instructors Conference. When people ask what it really means to be a firefighter, when they want examples that describe the true essence of our job, they need look no further than at the actions of Ray Downey and his colleagues in those final moments. They were the real thing.

LARRY COLLINS a 22-year veteran of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD), is a captain assigned to USAR-103, one of two LACoFD Urban Search and Rescue Task Force stations, where he is responsible for supervising and performing technical rescue operations across Los Angeles County. He was urban search and rescue specialist on the FEMA USAR “Red” Incident Support Team-Advance (night operations) at the Pentagon Incident on September 11, 2001; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the 2002 Winter Olympics. Collins is a search team manager for California/FEMA USAR Task Force #2 (CATF-2). He served as assistant task force leader of CATF-2 after the Northridge Earthquake, where CATF-2 was assigned to help the LAFD remove victims from the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartments.

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