Schools prepare for the Big One

It took just seconds for Muir Elementary School students to scurry under their desks Thursday morning, but it was a lesson officials hope will last a lifetime.

The school community joined millions of Californians for the Great California Shakeout, a drill aimed at improving emergency preparedness in the private and public sectors.

“I remember doing this as a student,” said state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who visited the Glendale Unified school to observe the exercise. “In California, there has always been this practice of doing it. It stays with you. It is like riding a bike or driving a car. It is just good practice.”

First launched in 2008, the shakeout is sponsored by more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies and is billed as the largest such drill in the country. The goal is to enhance preparation, response and recovery in a geographic region familiar with earthquakes, fires and floods, officials said.

In the build-up, participants are asked to refresh stockpiles of water, food and clothing, and to re-familiarize themselves with their plan. On the event day, they simultaneously put that plan into action, ducking under desks and then evacuating buildings.

First responders, including fire, police and hospital personnel, test backup communications equipment and response times. They also rehearse specific scenarios, such as how to evacuate hospital patients from top floors if an elevator is not functioning.

“Everybody gets an opportunity to work at it and see where the gaps are,” Liu said. “[An emergency] is going to come. We just don’t know when.”

At Muir, staff members made sure students assumed the proper position when taking cover — on their knees and holding on to a table leg. And after they moved to the playground, attendance was taken to ensure everyone was accounted for.

“I feel like every time you do something, it will become more natural,” said sixth-grade teacher Michelle Manalo. “I tell my kids the same thing. If we don’t practice, when an emergency happens, our nerves and our fear and our anxiety are going to inhibit us from doing what we should. So we have got to practice.”

Running through drills allows school officials to determine whether what is on paper will work in real time, Glendale Unified Supt. Dick Sheehan said.

The exercise also provides an opportunity for adjustments and improvements.

“One time, I was teaching summer school and an earthquake hit — the kids drop, got under and you don’t have to tell them,” Sheehan said. “I just think practice makes perfect.”

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