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Disaster Preparation: Muscle Memory

Disaster is rarely something that can be anticipated, but with the proper preparations, you can help minimize the risks, damage, and perhaps even prevent some incidents.


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How Muscle Memory May Someday Save Your Life

by Dan Wilson

Soon after the Mineral earthquake struck in the summer of 2011, I learned the importance of muscle memory. The magnitude 5.8 earthquake, considered Very Strong on the Mercalli Intensity Scale, show and damaged buildings, shut down a nuclear power plant, overloaded some 911 call centers, and closed streets due to reported gas leaks. Life was disrupted that afternoon in Virginia. Indeed, millions of Virginians can recall exactly where they were at 01:51:04 on August 23, 2011. Ask ten of them how they responded to the quake, and you will likely get a variety of answers.

I work at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Library. At 01:51:04 on August 23rd, I was walking across Grounds to meet with a colleague (ironically, a native Californian) at Alderman Library, so I didn't feel the earthquake. However, when I returned to my office, I learned that library staff responded in a variety of ways. Some responded well, while others not so well. And since none of us had ever experienced an earthquake of this magnitude, a variety of responses would be expected, which is why developing muscle memory may someday save your life.

Building muscle memory involves performing repetitious actions to increase the likelihood of a predicated response. Without it, you are at risk following a traumatic event, as your mind may be too busy trying to figure out what just happened than helping you get out of harm's way.

Performing a drill is the best way to develop muscle memory, which is why many states set aside a day each year for a statewide earthquake drill. Is an annual drill enough? The answer is yes if you know what three actions to take following an earthquake. (Answer: DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON.) If you didn't know the answer, then there is no better time that now to drill. Survey your present environment. Where would you DROP to take COVER, and what would you HOLD ON to?