The Field Act for Private Schools

Private School Safety – Why the difference, and what has changed?

In an earlier Post we discussed the Field Act, its origins in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and how it has protected public school children in California ever since. The Commission has looked at the Field Act, what it covers and does not cover. Key to the power of the Field Act is the requirement that the Division of the State Architect (DSA) approve plans for all K-12 and public community colleges. Other schools, including pre-schools and private and charter schools, are not subject to DSA oversight but rather local zoning and planning departments, and thus do not receive the same uniform review.

There is little question that compliance with the Field Act costs additional money in school construction, but how much is often debated. Less contentious is the fact that it is often difficult to find existing buildings that are Field Act compliant, thus it’s hard for preschool and charter schools to find suitable locations when they are first starting up, unless they build new or retrofit.

During a 1952 earthquake in Kern County, only one out of the 18 Field Act schools suffered even moderate damage, whereas 30 out of the 40 non-Field Act schools were damaged, according to a draft report by the Seismic Safety Commission. But changes is occurring as overall building codes are being improved for seismic safety requirements, and newer school buildings, both private and public, seem to have fared well in recent earthquakes, but not in all cases.

In response, at least one California city has formalized the requirement. In 2014 San Francisco passed Ordinance 202-14 requiring all private elementary and secondary schools to obtain an earthquake evaluation of their campus.

According to a study by the California Seismic Safety Commission (SSC), 29.1% of school children in San Francisco attend private schools—the highest among all California counties.


Earthquakes Safety and Private Schools – An Update from the November 2017 Seismic Safety Commission Meeting

At the November 9, 2017 meeting of the Seismic Safety Commission staff member and licensed structural engineer Fred Turner presented an update on the earthquake safety of public schools.

He confirmed that over 530,000 California students are enrolled in private K-12 schools, representing almost 8% of all K-12 students statewide.  There are 3,075 schools of which 78% are religious and 22% secular and a larger, but unknown number of buildings. And these buildings have a wide spread of age, some date before 1933 and the Long Beach earthquake that lead to the Field Act, which mandated high safety standards for schools that receive public funding.

But the Field Act does not apply to private schools and this leaves student attending these institutions potentially at higher risk from earthquake related harm.  November was not the first time that the Seismic Safety Commission has examined the topic and the need remains today.  San Francisco has recently mandated inspection of private schools, and it is an important first step.

Mr. Turner, in his testimony before the Commission, reiterated the need for better standards and summarized the prior Commission recommendations, which are still relevant today:

  • Complete seismic evaluations & ratings of all private schools
  • Modify Private Schools Seismic Safety Act to support compliance
  • Provide education & training to local governments which oversee implementation of the Private Schools Seismic Safety Act
  • Support private schools in their efforts to improve structural safety
  • Evaluate & require nonstructural retrofits, and
  • Regulate securing of school contents.

These are important activities to protect the lives and health of over 500,000 students in California. Attending a private school should not bring with it higher risk of earthquake related injury or death.


Earthquakes and Private School Safety


Over half of a million California students are enrolled in private K-12 schools.  That is a bit under 8% of the total, but in some place, like San Francisco, the percentage can be as high as 28-30% of students in private schools.  But this is not a Post about private vs. public school education, it is one about private school safety, or lack of earthquake safety in private schools.

In March of 1933 a Magnitude 6.4 earthquake stuck Long Beach, California and destroyed 70 schools and severely damaged another 120. Fortunately, the quake occurred after schools were closed. A month later California Governor James Rolph signed into law the Field Act, mandating the seismic safety of California schools.  This legislation and its successor laws and regulations, are considered the gold standard for seismic safety in schools worldwide.

But the law does not apply to private schools, and that leaves students attending private schools at risk of being in buildings that are possibly unsafe in an earthquake.  Although there is legislation that had the intent to provide all students safe buildings (the Private Schools Building Safety Act of 1986), there is no firm mandate and thus private school structures are less likely to be as safe as those public school buildings covered by the Field Act.

The issue of private school safety has been examined for over 13 years by the Seismic Safety Commission, in reports in 2004 and 2009 and testimony before the Commission in 2017.  The easiest solution is to have all California schools covered under Field Act requirements.


California to Learn Lessons from the September 2017 Earthquakes in Mexico

Seismic Safety Commission and Cooperation with Mexico

An Intergovernmental Effort to Help Improve Resilience and Response

California and Mexico share more than a long border, they share a common threat from earthquakes.  At the November 2017 Commission meeting Commissioners Miyamoto and Meneses, plus Dr. Sang-Ho Yun from JPL (a commission partner organization) presented their findings on Lessons Learned from the September 2017 Puebla-Mexico City M 7.1 earthquake.  This work was designed to gather lessons learned and apply them to reduce California’s earthquake risk.

The Commisison worked with teams from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) Instituto de Ingenieria, the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) team (funded by NSF) during the period September 24-30, 2017 and visited Mexico City, Puebla and Morelos, the Valsequillo Dam and the Epicentral area.  A detailed report from GEER can be found here.

Some of the benefits from the field work include the following:

  • Strengthened collaboration between Mexico and USA (California)
  • UNAM-Instituto de Ingenieria will participate (in addition to CICESE). The two leading earthquake research centers in Mexico will now partner
  • There is improved knowledge of building stock and seismic behavior in Mexico which can inform similar structures in the US
  • The importance of local site effects on seismic response of buildings and infrastructure
  • The limitations of building codes (if they are not enforced, they have no impact)
  • The value of developing community-based policies

Commissioner Kit Miyamoto and Learnings from the 2017 Mexico Earthquakes

Seismic Safety Commissioner Interviewed on Sacramento Channel 10 and Discusses Lessons Learned From Mexican Earthquakes

In November 2017, Channel 10 in Sacramento ran a story in their “Beyond the Headlines” series featuring Kit Miyamoto, structural engineer and member of the California Seismic Safety Commission. Commissioner Miyamoto, an expert on the structural dimensions of earthquake preparedness and safety, was interviewed by reporter Lilia Luciano, who accompanied him to impacted sites in Mexico City during the earthquake recovery efforts.

In the interview, Commissioner Miyamoto identifies major structural failures in Mexico that could have been minimized by seismic retrofit. He also explains the parallels between the underlying geology of the impacted areas in Mexico and Sacramento, highlighting how buildings in the State’s capital are at similar risk to those that failed during the Mexico quakes. He also explains that many buildings in Sacramento would benefit from the kinds of retrofit he recommended for Mexico and discusses the value of investing in seismic retrofit.

Commissioner Miyamoto also identifies the benefits, in terms of lower injury and death, from Mexico’s Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) System. California is working on a similar system for statewide deployment under the direction of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) with the support of the Seismic Safety Commission.

Seismic Safety Commission Holds November 2017 Meeting at Mexican Consulate, Emphasizing the Importance of Cooperation Between Mexico and the US on Earthquake Safety

The California Seismic Safety Commission held its November 9, 2017, meeting at the Mexican Consulate in Sacramento to highlight the cooperation between California and Mexico on earthquake issues and to review preliminary lessons learned from the devastating Mexican earthquakes earlier in the year.

Commissioner Kit Miyamoto, an expert on the structural dimensions of earthquake preparedness and safety, was in the impacted areas of the September 2017 earthquakes in Puebla, Mexico, while victims of the earthquake were still being located. He gave his firsthand impressions of what failed and what worked in terms of structural safety and shared his experiences in the recovery effort.

Also presenting on Mexico at the November meeting was Dr. San-Ho Yu of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA research facility operated by Cal Tech. His presentation covered the use of the FINDER system after the Mexican earthquakes of 2017 to help locate people buried under the rubble, improving rescue and saving lives. The FINDER system is one of the NASA developed technologies identified by JPL, a Seismic Safety Commission partner and grantee, for use during and after an earthquake.