What about the "Triangle of Life" e-mail that has been circulating for years?

Many people ask me about an e-mail that circulates with regularity describing the so-called Triangle of Life approach to avoiding injury during an earthquake.  This theory, which holds that one should get NEXT to something uncompressible rather than UNDER something sturdy, has been rejected by many emergency management organizations as being based on a number of incorrect assumptions and questionable premises, and these organizations have predicted that this approach is more likely to cost lives than to save them if the earthquake occurs in a country like the U.S. that has well-constructed buildings.

Recently, the American Red Cross has taken an aggressive stance against what it views as dangerous mis-information that is continuing to propagate.  I recommend that you read their statement.

It is also well worth looking at the links accumulated here by an impressive array of emergency organizations that reject the Triangle of Life approach and explain why.  Especially interesting as well is a point-by-point rebuttal of the different recommendations that comprise the Triangle theory.  Here are just a few examples of the interesting points raised:

- While safe pockets have been found next to large objects like cars in collapsed parking structures, the object would have shifted or rolled over and the person would have been crushed before the "safe" pocket found its final home.  (Similarly, just because protected zones are sometimes found next to non-compressible objects does not mean that all non-compressible objects will result in a protected zone.)

- In developed countries, the vast majority of building failures result in crumbling and rubble, rather than intact ceilings coming down.  Being next to an object does not shelter you from being buried under the rubble.

- In a Turkish study referenced by the creator of the Triangle of Life concept, a simulation of a tall building being knocked down resulted in collapse of whole floors onto each other (pancaking), but that was not a real earthquake simulation.  It simply rammed the pillars and did not include side-to-side motion that creates much of the damage and that may send objects sideways into potential safe pockets.

It is also extremely interesting to see what the reputable myth-busting Snopes website has to say about the issue (search for "triangle").  Notably, some variations of the e-mail claim that it has been "approved by Snopes," while in fact, the opposite is true; further eroding the credibility of the circulated e-mail.

Furthermore, some of the background given in the e-mail is questionable.  For example, the e-mail claims that after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, every child in a particular school was under their desk and they were all crushed; but the earthquake occurred well before the beginning of the school day (7:19 a.m.) and Mexico City officials claim that children were not in school at the time.

If you have received this e-mail (who hasn't?), and especially if you have forwarded it on yourself, I urge you to look at these links and pass along the information to anyone to whom you may have forwarded the "Triangle of Life," or to those who send it to you.

The major emergency organizations still agree: the best thing to do in an earthquake is to "drop, cover, and hold."  That is, get under something sturdy and hold on to it so that you can move with the object if it moves itself.

5/30/12 update: I happened across this very cogent extra perspective from a fire fighter and felt it was worth pointing out.

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