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Translating Science into Safety

Taking the information from scientists and ensuring the public is aware is Mark Benthien's main job. As Director for Communication, Education and Outreach for the Southern California Earthquake Center, he oversees the Great Californian Shakeout which saw 8.6 participants in 2011.

I am honored to be among those recognized as a Champion of Change as part of this year’s Individual and Community Preparedness Awards from FEMA. It’s important for me to start out by noting that, in receiving this recognition, I represent a large and growing group of people committed to earthquake risk reduction across the country. In particular I am fortunate to lead the Earthquake Country Alliance in California, which brings together scientists, government officials, community leaders, and many others to develop shared messages, joint products, and shared activities that help people prepared so they will survive and recover quickly in our next big earthquake. Our cornerstone program is the Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill, ( which began in 2008 and in 2011 had more than 8.6 million participants throughout the state practice how to protect themselves during a big earthquake: Drop, Cover, and Hold On.

The success of the ShakeOut has demonstrated the importance of involving the whole community in the planning and implementation of preparedness activities, and shows how much can be accomplished when committed people share their expertise, their time, and their resources. With the support of FEMA and the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program I have been working with many other states (and several countries) to replicate the ShakeOut model (in 2011 more than 12 million people total participated in ShakeOut drills) and have found the collaboration process profoundly rewarding.

Each new group of partners brings new insights and develops new products that are shared with the rest, developing a global model for motivating preparedness and mitigation. This year ShakeOut drills will be held in more than 18 states and territories, plus also in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, India, several Central Asian counties, and perhaps elsewhere. It’s a growing movement and I’m fortunate to now have so many new partners to develop the ShakeOut far beyond its original one-time-only plan!  Beyond just a drill, ShakeOut is now an infrastructure for organizing public education efforts for earthquake preparedness, mitigation, and resiliency.

Much of this spirit is an extension of the sense of community and purpose in my home organization, the Southern California Earthquake Center. SCEC is a research center funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Geological survey with over 60 participating institutions and headquarters at the University of Southern California (USC). As SCEC’s director for Communication, Education, and Outreach, I have a fantastic foundation of earthquake research and credibility, as well as the support of the NSF and USGS, without which much of what we have accomplished via the Earthquake Country Alliance may not have been possible.

My experience throughout my career is that to accomplish something big, build a big coalition. But to do that you need to have a vision big enough to interest and inspire a broad range of potential participants. So think big! And then when momentum builds, think even bigger. If the vision is clear, the stakes high, and everyone can claim the success, then people and organizations will step up and exceed everyone’s expectations.

Mark Benthien is Director for Communication, Education and Outreach for the Southern California Earthquake Center, headquartered at the University of Southern California.