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Finding Faults: MSU Researchers Study the Shakes

Bridge work

No one knows when the next earthquake will happen. But Jerry Stephens, associate professor of civil engineering, wants to prevent damage when it does. His research focuses on Montana's bridges and finding simple ways to strengthen them. Stephens works in conjunction with the Montana Department of Transportation. In his laboratory at MSU, he combines brute force and sophisticated technology to test half-size models of bridge segments. Steel frames bolted into the floor hold the models in place. Hydraulic rams controlled by computers apply force to the models, and Stephens assesses the damage. Wires embedded in the models are linked to computers so Stephens can see what's happening on the inside. He is especially interested in the connectors between the steel pipe piles and concrete pile caps. Stephens is also studying bridges via the computer simulations and analytical modeling of Ladean McKittrick, a postdoctoral research associate.
Earthquake Experts
MSU's earthquake experts cross departmental and office lines. From left are Jerry Stephens, Joe Fedock, and Dave Lageson.
"We are trying to experimentally and analytically model the behavior of those connections under cyclic loads that represent a seismic situation," McKittrick said. "Once we have a valid computer model, we will run as many variables as we want for virtually no cost," Stephens added.

Post-earthquake inspections

Stephens, like Fedock, is concerned with emergency building inspections after earthquakes. "Even in Bozeman, Montana, a building could look very heavily damaged and be pretty darn safe or may not look damaged at all and be on the verge of collapse," Stephens said. "So how do you, in the immediate post-earthquake period, assess whether people can occupy them?" The ideal would be to bring in an already-assembled team of structural engineers to inspect the joints and other vulnerable areas of a building, Stephens said. But most cities don't have the resources. Instead, they use local emergency personnel who do quick "sidewalk surveys." "California has pretty elaborate procedures and a fairly extensive system of people with experience, particularly in the construction field, identified as being able to lead a post-earthquake team to help identify that 'Yes, you can go back and occupy that house' or 'No, you can't,'" Fedock said. Montana needs such a system, especially because its weather is so severe, he continued. Unlike southern Californians, Montanans can't live outdoors while they wait to find out when they can return home.

Earthquake outreach

Montana has many earthquake issues it needs to address, said Fedock who has collaborated with faculty researchers on campus and emergency personnel around the state. To do his part, Fedock has met with the coordinator of Gallatin County's 911 system to talk about developing an earthquake training program for dispatchers. He and Stephens gave an earthquake seminar for state Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) staff, engineers and construction professionals throughout the state. Fedock and Dan VanLuchene, an MSU civil engineering professor, offered a short course on structural dynamics through MSU's Extended Studies program. The course told participants how to use computers to analyze the ability of a building to stand up to earthquakes. "Even though I'm clearly in an administrative role, I obviously want to keep my interest in (earthquakes) to whatever degree I can," Fedock said. Lageson also offers information on earthquake preparedness through his office on the Bozeman campus.
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