When a major tornado or earthquake rips through a community, local leaders and residents need to know quickly what homes and buildings are safe for use and what structures remain a risk for collapse. The magnitude of the damage can overwhelm local code enforcement and building department staff.
In Missouri, local officials can ask SAVE Coalition volunteers for help.
“A lot of people are going to be temporarily homeless, and they need to know which buildings they can stay in after a tornado or after an earthquake,” said Jeff Briggs, earthquake program manager for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. “And sometimes you can’t just tell at a glance whether a building is structurally sound. So we bring in these people with a structural background who are trained in rapid evaluation after a disaster, and they can take a look at homes and shelters and other structures and pretty quickly help local officials determine which ones are safe to go into.
“It helps people get in their homes more quickly if they are safe homes,” Briggs added, “or, if they are not safe, then it quickly helps people determine, well, do not go back in there, things might fall on you and hurt you. Instead, go to this location — maybe it’s a shelter — that we have assessed and that is safe.”
SAVE stands for Structural Assessment and Visual Evaluation. Its volunteers include engineers, architects, building inspectors and other professionals, according to the SAVE Coalition website, sema.dps.mo.gov/programs/SAVEcoalition.php.
“It’s a rewarding opportunity for professionals and civilians,” said Joe Leahy, P.E., an engineer, SAVE Coalition volunteer and chair of the coalition’s board of directors. “We are there to assist the community. We are not there to take over from local officials.”
Missouri state officials approved legislation in 1991 to create the SAVE Coalition. The action followed predictions by self-proclaimed climatologist Iben Browning that a major earthquake would strike the New Madrid Seismic Zone in early December 1990. The zone includes southeast Missouri and adjacent areas in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.
The prediction proved false, but it sparked “a whole ton of awareness” about the risk of earthquakes in that area, Briggs said. “The outgrowth of that false prediction was the creation of this SAVE Coalition. So that was kind of the silver lining to this frenzy we had back then.”
Missouri modeled its program on an existing one in California, Briggs said. At least several other U.S. states also have programs similar to SAVE.
The “Show-Me” state’s program ranks second largest in the nation behind California’s, based on the number of volunteers involved, Briggs said. Missouri’s more than 1,000 SAVE volunteers reside all around the state, which makes it easier to get people to a disaster site. Most volunteers are affiliated with one of nine SAVE Coalition partner groups, which include professional associations and organizations for engineers, architects, and building inspection and construction professionals.
SAVE volunteers have deployed seven or eight times in the past 30 years, Briggs said. The most recent deployment was to Jefferson City, the state capital, and Cole County, after a tornado on May 22, 2019.
SAVE volunteers go only to major disasters where lateral forces may have caused structural damage to buildings, Briggs said.
“We’re looking for things that would push or shake on a building to where you’d need some structural expertise to take a look at it to determine if it’s still safe, and those would typically be earthquakes and tornadoes,” he explained.
So far, all SAVE deployments have been for tornado damage, except for assisting Van Buren, Mo., following flash floods that pushed buildings and caused structural damage.
The SAVE Coalition also could be deployed to a man-made disaster that causes lateral-force damage, such as an explosion, Briggs said.
Before SAVE volunteers can deploy, Missouri’s governor must declare the disaster an emergency. Local officials then can contact SEMA to ask for SAVE Coalition help. SEMA officials assess the situation and decide whether to send SAVE volunteers.
SAVE help is free, but a community may need to reimburse volunteers for their mileage to the disaster location and their costs for food and lodging if it isn’t provided, information on the SAVE website said.
SAVE volunteers must meet certain qualifications:
- Possess at least five years of experience in the engineering, architecture, building inspection or construction industry professions.
- Complete one-day free training for rapid visual evaluation of buildings’ structural safety.
- Complete training recertification every three years.
SAVE training prepares volunteers to evaluate a building’s structural integrity in 15 minutes or less, Briggs said. They quickly fill out a report and get the information to local officials. SAVE volunteers often post building evaluation results via a smartphone app so local officials can monitor inspection progress in real time, he said.
State law protects SAVE volunteers from liability for their volunteer work except in cases of willful misconduct or gross negligence. The volunteers also are considered temporary SEMA employees, Briggs said, so they could qualify for some workmen’s compensation if injured while doing SAVE work.
When deployed, SAVE Coalition volunteers typically arrive at a disaster site two or three days after the incident to allow emergency first-responders to gain control of the situation, Briggs and Leahy said.
A SAVE volunteer trained to serve as an on-site coordinator starts working beforehand to organize plans for other volunteers’ arrival and for building inspection work, said Leahy, a senior project engineer with Smith & Company Engineers in Poplar Bluff, Mo. At a disaster site, SAVE volunteers typically work 12-hour days for two or three days, weather and daylight permitting. If more inspection work remains, a second rotation of SAVE volunteers will be sent to the disaster site, said Leahy, who has volunteered with the SAVE Coalition since the early 1990s.
Volunteers normally work in teams of two while inspecting buildings, Leahy said. They usually also request that a local law enforcement or building inspection official go with each team in case property owners want to speak with a local official about questions or concerns.
SAVE volunteers use color-coded placards, which they tape to a structure and post on the online map, to designate the safety status of each inspected building. Green means they found no structural problems, Leahy said. A yellow placard means a portion of the building may be at risk of falling. A red placard flags a structure as unsafe for entry.
In addition to the opportunity to help people, the SAVE Coalition’s training also attracts volunteers, Leahy said. The training qualifies as educational credit that volunteers need to maintain their professional licenses. Volunteers also can use much of what they learn in their normal jobs.
Missouri’s SAVE training has been recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a good standard for use nationally, Briggs noted.
The SAVE Coalition has worked so well in Missouri that its members are assisting people in other states who are forming or expanding similar coalitions, Leahy said. SAVE leaders also are talking with leaders of comparable groups in other states to plan how volunteers from one state can assist at a disaster in another state. Officials who would like more information about Missouri’s SAVE Coalition can contact Jeff Briggs at 1 (573) 526-9232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.