January 23, 2019

In the weeks following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I heard and saw devastating reports of the death and destruction that had occurred across the impoverished country. As a structural engineer, I wanted to contribute my skillset to the relief and rebuilding efforts. However, I learned that wanting to help wasn’t enough—engineering in emergencies requires special training.

While we don’t typically experience destruction to the same extent as third-world countries, buildings in the United States still need structural safety assessments after natural disasters. According to National Centers for Environmental Information, 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the U.S. The trend seems to be continuing: last year we saw extreme damage from Alaska’s earthquake and California’s wildfires.



As we continue to be susceptible to extreme weather events and winter weather approaches, the engineering, architecture and construction community should not only rethink how we design and operate our infrastructure, but also prepare and plan to use our knowledge and expertise to aid in recovery efforts. Keep reading to learn how my experiences have inspired me to undergo training and lend my engineering skillset to benefit my own community.


Structural Assessments for Tennessee

While I was never able to help in Haiti, in 2016 I went through training for TNSAVE, more formally known as the Tennessee Structural Assessment and Visual Evaluation Coalition. Modeled after similar programs like the Missouri SAVE Coalition, TNSAVE is an organization of professional engineers, architects, building inspectors and other industry professionals who voluntarily evaluate structures for safety following a disaster. We serve the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and the State of Tennessee, standing at the ready for when they need us.

Here’s how TNSAVE works:

Step 1. A disaster occurs, causing significant damage to buildings and structures

Step 2. The local government requests assistance from TEMA

Step 3. TEMA contacts the TNSAVE State Coordinators

Step 4. TNSAVE Coordinators contact volunteers

Step 5. Trained volunteers mobilize to disaster area

Once our inspectors are in the field, they evaluate buildings using rapid visual exterior inspections. They rely on their knowledge and training to decide if a building is safe enough to be occupied, only safe to the extent that occupants can go in and retrieve their items or if the building is structurally unsafe and people should stay away, before tagging the area with color-coded cards. The inspectors record their field data in a phone application that uses geographic information systems to store and map structural assessments. Once saved, the data is uploaded to the emergency command center, giving disaster response officials real-time data about conditions on the ground.

Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best

While Tennessee is susceptible to a variety of natural disasters, the threat of an earthquake is very real. The western edge of the state is home to the New Madrid Fault Line, a 150-mile long seismic zone that threatens six states and has recorded four of the largest North American earthquakes in history. The Mid-America Earthquake Center estimates as many as 1.48 million Tennessean will be impacted by the New Madrid Fault Line’s next major event, which is why we’re preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.



We’re Only as Good as our Team

Soon after my TNSAVE training I began training others and I now lead our training efforts.  TNSAVE currently has a database of several hundred volunteers ready to be deployed in the event of a flood, tornado, earthquake or other natural disaster. Each volunteer goes through seven hours of training – ATC 20 (Post-Earthquake Evaluation of Buildings) and ATC 45 (Safety Evaluation of Buildings after Windstorms and Floods) – before earning the required certification. Once certified, volunteers are added to the deployment database.

I’m often asked what we’re looking for in volunteers. In addition to being a licensed professional, our inspectors are able to inspect a variety of framing systems and rapidly identify load paths for a variety of building types. Most importantly though? They have a desire to use their skills to help others when they need it most.



Practice Makes Perfect

Next summer we’ll have a regional field training exercise with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The exercise will focus on our region’s earthquake response plan, with an emphasis on testing the system used to notify volunteers and track their availability, as well as the ArcGIS Collector app, which is used to document inspection information and upload it to the command center.

With any natural disaster, the road to recovery is a long one and largely depends on the help of volunteers and aid workers. As members of the A/E/C community, we bring a host of skills that are valuable – and I argue essential – to any relief effort. In a time when natural disasters seem to be frequent and the effects are felt across our communities, we have an opportunity to engineer with purpose and compassion, lending our technical expertise to help others in their time of need.


Interested in using your training to give back? Learn more about TNSAVE at www.tnsave.org or email RJ at rj.tazelaar@greshamsmith.com.