Imagine being stuck on the top floor of a nine-story building during an earthquake and not knowing what to do or where to go. Imagine also there are no emergency exits or an evacuation plan.
This was the experience of an elderly woman who suffered a panic attack during the Jan. 8 quake after a multitude rushed to the only available exit, a set of central stairs in the middle of one of the courthouse buildings in downtown San José.
Last week’s tremor took place at 1:19 p.m. on a weekday, when most of Costa Rica’s workforce was inside buildings. After experiencing the biggest quake in 18 years, many employers and employees are realizing the need for better training on what to do during an earthquake and how to swiftly evacuate afterward.
Although government agencies have been required since 2005 to implement evacuation plans, not all public institutions currently have a functioning plan. One is the country’s court system, which employs about 10,000 people nationwide.
“We’ve been developing an evacuation plan authorized by the Health Ministry over the last four years,” said German Rojas, security chief for the nation’s courthouse system.
“We couldn’t create an evacuation plan without providing for the public in our buildings.” The approved plan details the creation of an emergency brigade which will instruct each department where the emergency exits are, in addition to a daily check of hazards throughout the different offices.
Rojas said that limited emergency security staff has delayed the implementation of the evacuation plan in the majority of the court offices, including the seven buildings located in downtown San José.
Currently, court offices in Nicoya, Puntarenas, Liberia, and Santa Cruz have a plan they practice every three months.
The immediate goal for Rojas is to start practicing the approved evacuation plan at least three times within the next four months.
Other government institutions, such as the Social Security System (Caja), have had a plan in place since 2006.
“We have an emergency plan which both buildings are aware of,” said Teófilo Peralta, Caja building administrator. “The emergency drills let us know how prepared our brigade team is and how well the employees are responding to the plan.”
The emergency brigade at the Caja has coordinators on every floor of the two buildings where more than 2,000 people work.
These brigade members are trained for six months in first aid, vertical rescue, evacuation, security, firefighting and bomb skills, and are required to attend refresher courses every two years.
The Caja has carried out five drills between 2006 and 2008, the last one taking place in October.
During the drill, it took employees exactly five minutes to exit both buildings.
During last week’s quake, it took the staff three minutes to evacuate, while only three people were treated for panic attacks and one for a sprained ankle.
“This experience was a test and it showed us that people were prepared,” Peralta said “Having a plan makes a difference. It saves lives.”
Yet managers of small businesses along Avenida 2 in central San José have concerns regarding the lack of emergency planning by their employers prior to last week’s tremor.
Luis Solano, afternoon manager for Internet café Cybernet, said he was worried that heavy computer equipment could have fallen on the customers in the store during the quake.
“We didn’t have an escape plan. We didn’t know what was best: to stay indoors or to go out on the street,” said Solano, who afterwards spoke with the owner of the business. Both are now studying evacuation plans. “At full capacity, we can have up to 30 people in here. That could be a hazard in itself if we continue to not have a plan.”
Andres Rocha, manager for Exotik clothing store, said even though the building where his business is located is new, there are other dangers within the store.
“There is a lot of glass in here,” Rocha said. “What if the glass had broken and fallen on those customers or the staff? What were we going to do?”
Rocha requested a building code study on his store immediately after the quake. An expert this week checked the infrastructure and reinforcement of windows.
“We can’t take chances,” Rocha said. “There are earthquakes happening all the time. You never know when a big one might come.”