If Washington, D.C. residents thought they had prepared themselves for another potential terrorist attack, their performance during this week's earthquake should shake that sense of security.
The earth moved. And what did people do? They ran outside. Building management—which presumably should know better—evacuated buildings. Then, people milled around outside on the street, near the very buildings whose foundations were at risk because of the earthquake, and tried to make calls or send text messages on their cell phones.
Oh, this is not promising. A potential disaster unfolds, and residents of the U.S. capital not only put themselves in greater physical danger by positioning themselves next to buildings where debris could fall and hurt them, but then send text messages? When the earth is shaking beneath you, don't tweet—get to somewhere safe! [See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.]
In an earthquake, this usually means staying indoors, getting under a table or another stable overhead, and waiting it out. It means staying away from things that could fall down and hit you. More importantly, this is not the time to update your Facebook status, unless you want your status to be "injured and bleeding."
In locals' defense, staying inside is not a natural response. There is indeed a human tendency to run when danger occurs. Reporters and aid workers who take special safety training ahead of going into a war zone learn a couple of critical, counter-intuitive truths. First, if you seem someone who is suffering from a gushing wound, the first reaction may be to stop the bleeding. In fact, the most important thing (after assessing danger and trying to get a response from the injured person) is to make sure airways are clear and that the victim is breathing. Blood loss is jarring to the observer as well as the injured, but the victim will die much faster from asphyxiation than bleeding. The second safety tip is that when you hear an explosion, don't run; hit the ground. You can't outrun shrapnel, but you might be able to avoid it. Shrapnel tends to fly at about a 45 degree angle from the explosion site, so if you're lying flat on the ground, you have a chance to avoid it. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
It's understandable that residents of Washington, D.C. would not know to stay indoors, since earthquakes here are rare. But law enforcement and building management should know better. Putting up signs on the Metro that say, "Hey, is that your bag?" give a false sense of security against a potential terrorist attack. Knowledge of basic safety responses is clearly lacking.