All emergency response organizations ready themselves for disaster, but some catastrophes are easier to predict than others. While hurricanes and tornadoes often arrive with advance warning through weather forecasts or seasonal patterns, earthquakes can strike at any time. Public safety agencies do what they can to plan for an emergency that is rare and comes without notice.

Earthquakes are difficult to predict

Forecasting earthquakes seems an impossible task. Science has a long history of false predictions regarding earthquakes that underscore how little we know about the process of creating one.

“It is easy for climate systems,” said geology professor David Bowman, in Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise. “If they want to see what’s happening in the atmosphere, they just have to look up. We’re looking at rock. Most events occur at a depth of 15 kilometers underground. We don’t have a hope of drilling down there, realistically.”

Scientists have learned how to recognize geographic areas that are at risk for earthquakes. Augmented by increasing sensitivity to false positives, promising techniques now measure magnetic waves to anticipate fault slips. Reliable use of these approaches, however, is still years away.

While they wait for scientific help, first responders prepare response and recovery for disasters that arrive without warning. With earthquakes, emergency resources need to be mustered and delivered over long distances. Agents must also contend with cascading damage from aftershocks that may cause even more harm.

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Simulating the past prepares for the future

With a magnitude of 9.2, the Good Friday Earthquake remains the second-strongest quake ever recorded. Since surviving that disaster 50 years ago, Alaska has worked to improve its disaster preparedness in anticipation of another major earthquake.

Officials throughout the state tested agency earthquake response through Alaska Shield 2014, a coordinated training event that simulated conditions and damage of the 1964 tremors. The exercise allowed first responders to practice hazardous material detection, search and rescue operations, triage skills, evacuations and communication support.

“There is no question that Alaska is an ideal venue for this exercise, which will test our collective ability to share information among federal, state, local, tribal and other community organizations and respond accordingly,” said Army Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Katkus, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

More than 1,100 first responders took part in Alaska Shield, with participants hailing from states like Hawaii, Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Agencies embrace collaboration

The Alaskan effort mimicked the coordination that would take place during a real-life earthquake. Agents were able to familiarize themselves with the protocols and resources that come into play when multiple departments join forces.

For example, a communications team from the Wisconsin National Guard took part in Alaska Shield. They were tasked with providing communication and networking support between state or local groups, as well as federal agencies like FEMA. Wisconsin provided emergency officials on the ground with the information and resources needed to carry out operations.

Responders from around the country simulated the rescue of hundreds of civilians and the movement of equipment, as well as coordinating the logistics of relief workers.

“We know disasters will continue to place intense demands on our capabilities,” said Col. Tami Rougeau. “Fortunately, these kinds of exercises help us to build up the relationships and skills we need to respond effectively.”

Training exercises such as Alaska Shield allow participating organizations an opportunity to see how much can be achieved quickly when they work together. It also underscores the effectiveness of collaborative efforts and pooled resources when facing rare and extreme disaster.

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