The Big One Is Coming: Is Your Agency Ready?

According to the National Earthquake Information Center, there are 12,000 to 14,000 earthquakes a year around the world—that’s an average of 35 earthquakes per day. This total includes one great (magnitude 8.0 or greater on the moment magnitude scale); 18 major (7.0–7.9); 120 large (6.0–6.9); and 1,000 “moderate” (5.0–5.9) earthquakes in an average year. California alone generally gets two to three earthquakes big enough to cause moderate damage to structures (5.5 and higher). There are hundreds of identified faults in California, 200 of which are considered potentially hazardous because of their slip rates (the rate at which one side of the fault moves with respect to the other side) in recent geological time (last 10,000 years). Over 70 percent of California’s population lives within 30 miles of a fault where ground shaking could occur over the next 50 years.1

The likelihood of experiencing an earthquake is something residents of California have to be prepared for, particularly those residents living on or near a fault line, such as, most famously, the San Andreas Fault. Geologists have been studying and warning Californians of the pending “big one” on the San Andreas Fault. When the big one occurs, which is likely in the next few decades, it will be like nothing Californians have ever experienced before. Imagine “the jolt from the” expected “7.8-magnitude temblor lasting for three minutes—15 times longer than the disastrous 1994 Northridge quake.”2 Within two minutes, a city like Los Angeles and its suburbs will shake like a bowl of jelly. The violent shaking will fracture water and sewer pipes, cause power failures, split apart major highways and bridges, and collapse older concrete and brick buildings. Thousands of people will likely be injured and killed, as well as billions of dollars in damages accrued.

Knowing what can occur during and after an earthquake should be the starting point for preparing for the next “big one.” Given the possibility of a pending significant earthquake in California, how will the potential lack of infrastructure impact law enforcement’s ability to fulfill their mission in the next few decades?

Manuals, guidelines, and other resources exist that cover the potential emergency scenarios that might occur during and after an earthquake, as well as the steps a city needs to take to prepare for an earthquake. However, law enforcement agencies (particularly those in high-fault areas like California) need to be aware of the possible damages to critical infrastructure as a result of an earthquake; many implications for law enforcement to consider during and after an earthquake; and issues law enforcement agencies should consider and prepare for ahead of time in order to successfully deal with the next big one.

Infrastructure Damages

Most people don’t think about the critical infrastructures that make life possible until there is a disruption to the many services upon which they rely. An earthquake can disable many critical services and the return of those services will depend on the severity of the earthquake and degree of the damage. One of those services is electricity. Electric light poles and lines can be damaged after a serious shake, severing electricity service. The lack of electricity translates into no light or heat and possibly no water. Telephone landlines will most likely be affected, as well as cellphones, due to damaged towers. Gas pipelines could be damaged as well, resulting in fires or explosions. Roadways, bridges, train tracks, and airports can be damaged, preventing travel into or out of the region, as well as the transportation of critical supplies, including food, water, and medicines.3

Every infrastructure system involves structures, individual and interconnected equipment, control systems, and power supply. The following types of infrastructural systems are important and during disasters must be given special consideration due to their important roles:

  • Public Services—hospitals, police stations, fire stations, and central food distribution centers
  • Water—water supply and sewers
  • Transportation—roads, highways, railways, airports, and harbors
  • Telecommunication—surface-based telecommunication and modular telecommunication
  • Energy supply—electricity, gas, petrol, and gasoline4

Implications for Law Enforcement

When the “big one” occurs, it could have major implications for law enforcement’s ability to deal with the magnitude of the event due to the lack of or limitations to the critical infrastructure needed to operate efficiently. Examples of obstacles law enforcement must be prepared for include the following:

  • Damaged roadways and bridges can hinder the ability to get personnel and resources to the needed areas.
  • The threat of fires and smoke can prevent police and fire personnel from entering the affected area to render aid or perform rescue.
  • A lack of water pressure and a general lack of water can hamper firefighting efforts
  • Disabled and damaged cell towers and land lines will affect telephonic communication.

Regarding the last risk, that to communication infrastructure, it’s important to note that increased call volume can also knock out communication systems even if the systems’ infrastructure survive the earthquake. To deal with this issue, mobile carriers encourage SMS text messaging during high-volume situations because “text requires less dedicated real-time capacity than voice.”5 Law enforcement needs to determine if backup communication systems are readily available. Without communication, how will needed resources and personnel be communicated and dispatched? How will agencies get officers to respond to work during a major earthquake when there’s no communication available?

During disasters, the major U.S. mobile carriers immediately move into action to fix service outages, temporarily boosting service if needed. Equipment trailers and support vehicles can be sent out to deal with the disaster. The goal is to, “route non-involved telecommunications traffic around an affected area, give the affected area communications access to the rest of the world, and to recover communications service to a normal condition as quickly as possible through restoration and repair.”6

Beyond the issues listed, there are basic infrastructure concerns for law enforcement and communities in the event of an earthquake. Broken levees; water pipes; sewer pipes; or, on a larger scale, a tsunami can cause severe flooding. Electricity outages can hamper the ability and functionality of emergency services, especially if there aren’t sufficient backup generators.

Collapsed structures are another common result of an earthquake. Rescue and emergency personnel might have to enter these risky structures to search for and rescue people while having to navigate falling debris and other safety hazards. In any mass casualty incident, there will be the logistical necessity to deal with deaths and injuries—hospitals might be inundated or need to be evacuated. Ambulance companies will need to figure out how to get the injured to a medical facility while dealing with damaged roadways. In addition, secondary locations might need to be set up to deal with patient overflow and relocation needs.

Despite all the dangers and implications associated with a major earthquake, California is considered fairly safe compared to other earthquake-prone regions. California continues to build safer buildings to save lives during an earthquake. Continued research and development of technology tracks earthquakes to increase warning times and reduce damage. Planning and preparing for the next earthquake will greatly reduce the number of deaths, but total preparedness is a challenge when no one knows when the next big one will happen.

Lessons Learned

On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay area with the magnitude of 7.1. It was the largest earthquake to hit California since the Great Earthquake of 1906.7 The quake was felt from Los Angeles in southern California to the Oregon border. The earthquake brought out the best in California’s emergency response system—law enforcement agencies were able to carry out key roles despite disruptions in the area’s infrastructure. Those roles included actions and activities outside of the normal, daily police functions, such as conducting damage assessment, assisting with evacuation, and responding to hazards like gas leaks or traffic light failures.8

After the earthquake, the California, Office of Emergency Services (OES) Law Enforcement Division conducted a thorough written survey for the purpose of identifying several specific areas relating to the earthquake’s impact on the justice system. Those areas included

  • Impact on facilities and operational capability
  • Impact on personnel and staffing
  • Development of priorities and ways to meet these requirements
  • Specific impact on communications centers
  • Lessons that agencies would pass on to other law enforcement agencies

The OES survey resulted in learning points in the areas of facilities and equipment, training, and policy development. Law enforcement agencies in California and any area at high risk of earthquakes can benefit from these lessons learned. In addition, many of the lessons can be applied to other large-scale disasters.

Personnel and Training. Personnel should receive training about their roles during a large-scale disaster, such as an earthquake, before one occurs. Training needs to include what specific activities must first be performed. The training should involve cross-training with outside agencies like utilities, fire, and public works, as well as intra-departmental training. This training would, for example, allow officers and deputies to learn more about the communications center function, community service officers to learn more about damage assessment, and deputies to learn more about the coroner function. The use of volunteers (e.g., reserves and explorers) should be stressed and expanded, and agencies should conduct skills and qualifications inventories to identify personnel with special skills and language abilities.

The OES survey discovered that further, field-oriented training needs to include light rescue, urban heavy rescue, EMT for law enforcement, and how (and when) to safely shut off utilities. Additionally, further training was needed in the areas of radio discipline and briefings on the duties and responsibilities of state agencies. The final training needs mentioned involved personal physical fitness and the important role it plays in officers’ capabilities to deal with stressful situations. In addition, personnel should be trained to take independent action in the absence of supervision or guidance during emergencies. Management training was brought up as it related to understanding the concepts and uses of the mutual aid and incident command systems.

Operational Capabilities. Communications centers, emergency operations centers, and command facilities need to maintain operational capability after such events. Communications and electrical power systems must be backed up and subjected to force-testing to ensure adequate reliability, capacity, and capability. Interagency communications capability must be available and familiar to personnel.

Supply items (e.g., flares, cones, barricades, and batteries) must be available, easily accessible, and stored in abundant quantity. Supplies should be stored in varies locations to avoid complete loss if one site is destroyed.

Process. Traffic control points should be pre-identified, and a priority list of critical sites that need to be staffed should be accessible to all personnel as they become available. Documentation and record keeping must be priorities, as well. Damage assessment should focus on critical facilities first and be communicated to the emergency operations center. This information will allow all personnel to understand the overall situation.

Law enforcement agencies have access to a tremendous amount of information and resources about earthquakes. The OES survey is an example of a resource from which many valuable lessons can be learned. Law enforcement agencies should take advantage of the available resources and information to be better prepared for the next major earthquake or other large-scale disaster. There’s no better time than the current time to start training and preparing—law enforcement leaders must be knowledgeable and prepared as they play a key role in preparing their personnel and communities for a future disaster.


Every day there are multiple earthquakes occurring somewhere around the world, along with other disasters, both natural and caused by people. Law enforcement agencies in earthquake-prone regions can benefit from learning what has happened in the past to better prepare for the next one, and all agencies can benefit from disaster preparedness and planning. Training for such an event should take place now and involve all community service–oriented entities. Scenario-based training should prepare law enforcement agencies to deal with a variety of hazards and enable a quicker response time to any major disaster. Law enforcement must recognize that their role changes when dealing with a disaster in terms of focus, urgencies, and priorities.

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; but rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

This journal article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it—creating, constraining, and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats which are relevant to the profession.

The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and journal article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

© Copyright 2016, California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training


1California Department of Conservation, “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

2Alicia Chang, “Scientists Detail Impact of ‘Big One’ Quake in California,” ABC News.

3Infrastructure Damage After an Earthquake,” Survival Goods.

4Jost Studer, Vulnerability of Infrastructure (Zurich, Switzerland: Studer Engineering, 2000).

5Neal Ungerleider, “Why Your Phone Doesn’t Work During Disasters–And How to Fix It,” Fast Company, April 17, 2013.


71989 San Francisco Earthquake,” History; “The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake,” U.S. Geological Survey Earthquakes Hazards Program.

8All the successive facts in the article refer to this report by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Law Enforcement Operations Report: Loma Prieta Earthquake (Sacramento, CA: Law Enforcement Division, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, 1990).