On the L’Aquila trial verdict: earthquake safety is about door locks, not fire alarms

A post by Chris RowanImagine that one day, an apartment block in a major city catches fire. The fire brigade arrive too late, and the whole block burns down with people still trapped inside. An investigation reveals that the building’s fire alarm system was faulty and did not send out any warning to the residents, or the fire service. The survivors of this disaster seek legal redress against the owners of the building for failing to protect them. ‘The alarms should have sounded and warned us,’ they say. Would you agree with them? Most people probably would.

Now imagine that instead of burning down, the apartment block is burgled, and a resident who walks in on the thieves ends up being shot. Just before this, a spate of armed robberies in the local area got some press attention, and in an interview the chief of police says something along the lines of ‘we’re investigating, but crime rates are not significantly higher than usual, so please stay calm.’ An investigation in this case shows that security in the building was somewhat lacking: doors were often left unlocked. The residents again seek legal redress – against the chief of police. ‘You shouldn’t have played down the obvious danger to our building,’ they say, ‘if only you’d said we were going to be burgled, we would have made sure the doors were locked.’ Would you agree with them now?

In the L’Aquila earthquake trial, which has just concluded with the conviction of six scientists and one official for multiple counts of manslaughter, the prosecution made (and the court apparently accepted) an argument akin to the first scenario: the scientists failed to sound a proper warning (or, as the prosecution put it, they provided ‘false reassurance’ by saying there was no increased risk) before the magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck in April 2009, and they are therefore culpable for the 309 deaths that resulted. However people try to spin it into being about poor risk communication rather than a failure to predict the unpredictable, the basic underlying argument remains that there should have been a warning, but there was not, and therefore people died.

However, as I argued back when the trial first kicked off, there was no scientifically justifiable reason to think there was an elevated risk of a large earthquake, beyond the background risk of living in a seismically active region with a history of large earthquakes. The regional swarm of smaller earthquakes that prompted the fateful meeting between the scientists and the Italian Civil Protection Agency said nothing about the chances of an earthquake within the next week, within the next month, or the next 5 years – except in hindsight.

Seismic hazard map of Italy

Seismic hazard map for Italy, showing the peak ground accelerations that have a 10% chance of being exceeded in 50 years. There is always a high earthquake risk near L’Aquila. Source: INGV.

In fact, I’d argue that this situation was a lot more like the second scenario I described above; that earthquake hazard is much more akin to crime rates than fire risk. Crime is a fact of life in a big city, and if you’re sensible you don’t wait for specific warnings to take precautions. Every day, regardless of any specific crime wave going on at the time, you lock your doors; you secure your valuables; you take care where you walk at night. These everyday, habitual actions minimise the risk, but everyone is aware that despite these precautions, you might still get burgled. The police chief’s comments were not intended to imply there was no risk of crime at all, and in an ideal world should probably have ended with an admonition to take the normal precautions of locking your doors. However, if the residents of the burgled flats were unaware that cities have higher crime rates, and certain actions make you safer, and suffered as a result of this lack of knowledge, I’m not sure you can assign blame to one man speaking in one interview: it points to a much deeper communication issue.

In a similar fashion, there is never a time when the people of L’Aquila are not at risk of a large earthquake – it’s a fact of where they live, irrespective of what background seismic activity is occurring at any particular time. The downfall of the prosecuted scientists appears to be that they made their assessment of no elevated risk in this context, not realising that most people (including, perhaps, Bernardo De Bernardinis, the convicted Civil Protection Agency official) did not understand that “no elevated risk” did not mean “no risk”. This points to a communication failure, but a long-lived, systemic one, not specific to these scientists and one press conference.

In earthquakes, lives are almost never saved by evacuations before the fact, because specific, timely warnings are currently scientifically impossible. They are saved by rigorous and well-enforced building codes, and a populace that knows to drop, cover and hold on. This is why the L’Aquila verdict is so damaging: not only will it have a chilling effect on what scientists are willing to say in public about the geological risks an area or population face, but it reinforces the all-too-common idea that earthquake safety is like a fire alarm; you only need to take action when there is a specific short-term warning. It’s like expecting the police to show up at your door to warn you that your house is probably going to be robbed tomorrow – and only then locking your doors. We need to get people focussed on the door locks – basic, everyday actions that improve their safety – instead.

Categories: earthquakes, geohazards, public science, society
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Comments (13)

  1. Austin says:

    Chris, I wholeheartedly agree with your point that what’s at fault here isn’t these particular scientists in this particular instance (and great analogy!) but rather is a systemic issue with public literacy of earthquake risk and mitigation procedures throughout Italy.
    I think one of the problems is that in fact Drop, Cover, and Hold On is not the appropriate procedure in a Medieval city, where 20,000 houses came tumbling down into piles of stones during the shaking. Sleeping outside after sizable jolts was probably the citizens’ best bet, if they had any, and the civil protection agency told them –albeit vaguely– that they didn’t need to do that. They failed to provide a frank discussion of the real, existing risk and what to do about it. Perhaps because they didn’t know what to do about it. For an ancient city like L’Aquila there aren’t any good answers without enormous financial investment in retrofitting.
    It’s definitely misleading to convict this group of criminal negligence, but because of the dreadfully unfortunate sequence of trivial events, whose whole had more impact than the sum of its parts, the uncorrected colloquial knowledge of earthquakes, and the apparent inner workings of the Italian justice system, I would dispute your assertion that the argument was “that there should have been a warning, but there was not, and therefore people died.” The argument was more like… “there WAS a warning, and the officials told people they didn’t need to heed it, and therefore people died.” Sorting out the responsibilities and failures in the system here is a much messier task. In hindsight, yes there was a warning, but the scientists failed to dispel the notion that we have no reliable warnings for earthquakes, and now they have a serious uphill battle to face in doing so.

    I agree that there are important lessons to learn from this, but I wouldn’t necessarily say an injustice has been brought upon these scientists, except for the sentence.
    …Thank goodness for the appeals process.

  2. Katherine says:

    What if in your burglary scenario the chief of police said that there was no danger, and in fact, the recent crimes make future, more violent robberies even less likely? That would be more in line with the information the public was given in L’Aquila, from what I have read. Of course 6 years in prison is outrageous, and it’s not even clear that the message of “no danger” came from the seismologists. So I am in no way agreeing with the verdict or the charge of manslaughter. But the fact is that incorrect information was given at that press conference, and as a result people who had been sleeping in their cars went back inside.

    I am a seismologist who regularly talks to the local news media about earthquake risk. Those of us who do this have a responsibility not just to calm fears but, even more importantly, to communicate the real dangers of living in an earthquke-prone area. That can be difficult in times of panic but this situation illustrates how important it is.

  3. Chris Rowan says:

    But the fact is that incorrect information was given at that press conference, and as a result people who had been sleeping in their cars went back inside.

    But again, we can only talk about ‘incorrect information’ with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, there was no scientifically justifiable reason to say that there was a higher than normal risk of an earthquake. Would it have still been incorrect if the main shock had hit 6 weeks later (entirely possible), rather than six days?

  4. Katherine says:

    Its true we do have the benefit of hindsight, which is always so helpful, and I’m not saying that anyone should have predicted the earthquake. However, quoting from Nature’s excellent review of the situation:

    …De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger”, adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”.

    Two things there are incorrect, regardless of hindsight: 1) the “no danger” comment and 2) the suggestion that the continuous discharge of energy from smaller earthquakes makes a future larger one less likely.

    I feel like I’m defending the prosecution here which is really, really not my intent. The charges and sentences are insane and I am so glad to be a scientist in America right now. I signed the petition asking Italy not to prosecute and sincerely hope these sentences are overturned in the appeals process. Just trying to make the point that it is a complicated case filled with nuance that is largely being missed. The first commenter did a great job of laying out some of the complications.

  5. Danilo says:

    No Sorry, that was not incorrect information: “scinetist” entered the meeting room with a ready answer, suggested them by politics: you have to say that everything is under control, and nothing will be worse.

    NO, that is not scientific; they had to say: sorry citizens of l’Aquila, but we can not say anything about earthquakes, we ca not reansure you that will not be a massive earthquake.

    But, no, they even said: do not worry, stay at home and drink a glass of Montepulciano wine for dinner…

  6. There is an important point you are overlooking here. The telephone conversations before and after the earthquake, which constitute an important part of the evidence base used by the judges, show how the statements made by the CGR were previously arranged. Decisions on what to communicate were taken on the basis of political needs, they were not based on science. In fact, the meeting lasted less than 20 minutes and nothing was discussed there. It was made just for the media. For example: “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”.
    I think scientists should never accept this kind of complicity with politicians. Is this enough for being jailed 6 years? I don’t know, I am not a lawyer.

    • Chris Rowan says:

      I’ve seen this phone conversation being bandied around in the comments without a source, so here’s a link to a Nature story about it:


      If Nature is reporting it accurately, the only one involved here is the convicted official, Bernardo De Bernardinis, and not the convicted scientists. If this is true, the most the scientists are guilty of is not publicly correcting the pronouncements of an official who apparently ignored them. Worthy of criticism? Yes. Evidence of criminal complicity? I’d say not.

      Once again, my fundamental issue with this conviction is that it presumes that there was a heightened risk that was known about (or should have been known about), and this information was not passed on to residents. However, the effect of moderate seismic activity on the risk of an imminent, larger earthquake in the same region is, in this case as in all cases, unknown (and, as far as we know, unknowable). We can currently only link the two in hindsight. My main argument above is that the real problems – problems that this conviction does nothing to solve, and in fact only exacerbate – stem from people placing any reliance on short-term pronouncements of risk. Ideally, residents’ response to statements like De Bernardinis’ would be “No risk? This is L’Aquila. Get real.” (or the Italian equivalent).

  7. Katherine says:

    Chris, I completely agree with your point that from what the English sources are reporting, there is no evidence that anyone but Bernardinis said anything wrong. I can’t help but think that we non-Italian-speakers don’t have all the information. Either that or the Italian court system is truly messed up. Or both.

  8. There is a new wiretapped phone call that has been released today 25th October 2012. Here the link to it: http://goo.gl/yRVIr you can also listen to it, they posted the audio file. This new wiretap is far more important than the older one because here Bertolaso, the right hand of Berlusconi, is talking to Boschi, the head of the National Institute of Volcanology and head of the Commissione Grandi Rischi. In the older, Bertolaso was talking to his secretary or something like that. Here, you can listen to Boschi agreeing to release false declarations in front of the press in order to comply with the requirements of Bertolaso. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for a non-Italian to get the nuances of the conversation, but I can tell you that what you get is the feeling that Boschi, and the others, was under the orders of Bertolaso, clearly accepting to hide the truth. Bertolaso: “we cannot say the real reason for the meeting” Boschi: “yes, you know we are willing to be very collaborative…we will prepare a statement for the press and I’ll give it to you before we give it to the press”.
    Regarding the possibility of predicting the earthquake, the institutional function of the scientists involved was to provide indications about the best strategy for risk mitigation. L’Aquila was under recurrent earthquakes for months and the Aquila’s Mayor asked for the declaration of the “state of emergency”. If the “state of emergency” is issued, than money becomes available for establishing camps, fixing buildings and other interventions that can reduce the number of deaths in case of an extreme event. Judges have asked several geologists to declare in the trial. They said that the assessment was not the right one given the data available at the moment of the meeting. In fact, no “state of emergency” was declared because “there was no risk”. Now, if the “no risk statement” was based on scientific evidence, ok, I would stand with the convicted scientists; but the wiretaps show that statement was issued on the basis of political needs. And this changes a lot of things… Anyway, we need to wait for all the documents about the sentence to be released, before we can judge the judges.

    • Chris Rowan says:

      Thanks for the link and translation – Google translate does not do a great job, sadly, but I do notice that this conversation is apparently from the 9th April, or three days after the main shock.

      • Well, I have tried to sum up several sentences in two. The fact is that now that the first trial is done, the documentations is being analyzed by journalists and the wiretap are coming out. Here there is a new article about a new document.

        This is 9th of April, the scientists believe that a new shock similar to that of the 6th is very likely. But, following Bertolaso’s orders, they did not speak. This is the matter they talk about in the telephone call.

  9. I am not a geophysicists, but I have been told that an earthquake swarm implies an increase in the probability of earthquakes of whatever magnitude, hence also of the strong ones. They said that in Aquila the probability of a strong earthquake was 200 times higher than what it was before the beginning of the swarm. I think this is something related with the Gutenberg–Richter law, but I am not sure…

  10. Jimmi Kristensen says:

    This is so scary and i never have seen anything worse, everyone with reason know that everything is about ossibility. I can’t say that an earthquake will not happen in Copenhagen, but it is a possibility though extremely rare, and we had a small one last year, only 4 on the Richter scale, but who will be able to say anuthing if you can go 6 years in prison if you are wrong, no one will do it, no one will take a responsibility no matter what. There should be no conviction at all and if i can write on anything to help the italian researchers i will and pm.

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