Related articles: The Deseret News has been running a series on earthquake preparation in conjunction with the Great Utah ShakeOut drill.
SALT LAKE CITY — Aaron Loony struggled to get under his desk, his movements a bit jerky and labored. Once he did, he pulled himself in tightly, holding to the desk as best he could.
His classmates at Taylorsville High School also huddled under their desks as Carolyn Visser, Aaron's personal aide, cautioned them, "You have to hold on (to your desks), these things will walk away from you," she said. "If you don't practice it, in the real thing your head or spine will be injured."
Moments later, the shrill fire alarm gave the evacuation signal. Aaron mounted his motorized wheelchair. More seconds ticked off as he struggled to snap the seat belt together.
Once ready, he flicked the control lever and zipped off. Visser called after him: "Go as fast as you can go, but go as safe as you can go."
The 17-year-old high school junior with cerebral palsy was among more than 900,000 Utahns who participated Tuesday morning in Utah's largest earthquake drill in history — the Great Utah ShakeOut. Almost 600,000 other students at 450 schools throughout Utah also crouched under desks and practiced "Drop, Cover and Hold."
"Drop to the ground (before the earthquake drops you!). Take cover by getting under a sturdy desk or table, and hold on to it until the shaking stops," advises The Great Utah ShakeOut website.
The massive drill at 10:15 a.m. also included around 120,000 participants at 48 colleges and universities, 55,000 at 485 businesses, 15,000 at 119 medical facilities and many others.
Despite his extra challenges, Aaron pulled himself to the top of a flight of stairs, ready to be lifted down to an exit door well within the two minutes and 30 seconds it took to clear the school. Within 10 minutes of the drill's start the Taylorsville students were filing back into class.
The students, who practice three fire, one earthquake and a lockdown drill every year, seemed to take it all in stride. "I thought it went excellent," summed up assistant principal John Shackelford. "We figure 2:40, 2:45 is good, but we did it in 2:30."
For some organizations, the ShakeOut was also a bit of a rainout. Since it was only a drill, Taylorsville High students weren't made to stand out in the steady drizzle.
Neither were students at West Hills Middle School in West Jordan.
"We're not going out in the rain," Jacinto Peterson, vice principal, said before the drill. "If it is coming down, I don't want to go out there."
Ninth-grade students in Megan Waller's class also quickly ducked under their desks. She reminded the kids that it's most important to protect three parts of their bodies: "Head and neck and heart. Make sure those are covered, please."
They, too, gathered near the exit doors to stay dry. Waller pointed out that outside is not always the safest place to go, where there might be hazards such as downed power lines. "These drills are actually really common for the students," she said.
The school's emergency team found that on the first go-round some of the PA speakers played the drill announcements and the CD of earthquake sound too softly. They called for a re-do, "an aftershock," Peterson called it.
More importantly, from all the public attention the ShakeOut has received the students were prompted to think about the real thing happening, Waller said.
"I thought it was scary, if it was in real life," 15-year-old Skylar Cook said. "If it does happen, I would know what to do."
For some public officials, the exercise will last past Tuesday's drill.
The ShakeOut is the public side — essentially a powerful marketing tool — to get some 940,000 Utahns to plan and practice what they would do during the real thing, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
Less visible is a network of emergency operations centers sith teams of state, county and city experts in transportation, search and rescue, law enforcement, firefighting, public utilities, military and other areas.
Each emergency team gathers in its operations center. Another group, called a SimCell, feeds the team scenarios such as collapsed buildings, shattered freeways, fires, utility outages and so on.
The team then discusses the scenario, referred to as an "injection," and decides how to respond and what resources to use — sending out anything from search and rescue teams, National Guard units, even backhoes.
"They must decide what needs to go where," Dougherty said. But those are just "table top" exercises that do not involve anything real.
Tuesday the Salt Lake County emergency response team acted as a SimCell, sending out injections to many emergency centers. The West Valley City EOC, for instance, responded to 66 such scenarios, said Steve Sautter, Salt Lake County emergency specialist.
Other highlights from the day of drills:
• The University of Utah evacuated every building on campus, sending students and staff out into Tuesday's rain.
• Primary Children's Medical Center used makeup to create simulated injuries that triage teams had to sort out and respond to.
• The Associated Food Stores corporate office and warehouse in West Valley City had more than 200 employees drop, cover and hold, then evacuate its 200,000-square-foot building. Its 46 grocery stores didn't close to the public or evacuate, said safety director Dave Karpowitz. Each store made an announcement and eight-member employee teams practiced emergency response procedures, then reported results to regional managers.
• Many small businesses got into the action. In South Salt Lake, at Camp Bow Wow, which provides boarding and day care to dogs, at 10:15 workers ran into three play rooms, calling the dogs to go outside, said owner Sharon Opfermann. About three-fourths of the 79 dogs complied during the 30-second faux quake, she said.
In the real thing, "the dogs will probably tell us that something is wrong before we do," she said.
Utah plans a ShakeOut every year, just as California has for the past five years, Dougherty said. The emergency operations centers' exercises will not be as extensive, but planners hope to exceed 1 million Utahns signing up for the ShakeOut.