Drop, Cover, Hold: Even pre-schoolers are taught that is the right thing to do in an earthquake.

But a new study into the behaviour of 213 people during the February 22, 2011, earthquake, has revealed not a single person followed the official advice.

Instead the study, which used CCTV footage from Christchurch Hospital's emergency department, found people often tried to help others around them.

Canterbury University disaster management professor Thomas Wilson said some people took heroic action to try to protect others, especially children or injured patients.


"Some acts we saw were extremely selfless, like people covering patients with their own bodies," he said.

About a quarter of people studied held on to furniture, walls or other people around them during the quake, and about a third were looking around at other people.

The study was part of a wider project, which aims to understand how people actually respond in a disaster situation, and what things lead to people being hurt.

Dr Wilson said while "drop, cover, hold" was still the advice people were given, experts needed to understand why they might not follow it.

That could help them shape future advice, as well as things like the design of buildings.

He said the researchers saw patterns in the way people reacted during the study.

People who were alone tended to react more defensively, while people in groups tried to help each other. Nurses on duty were also more likely to immediately think of their patients, rather than trying to stay safe themselves.

Dr Wilson said researchers in the past had relied on things like interviews or ACC claims for information, but there were gaps in that information.

"With memories, the timing is always a bit out and we struggled a lot to understand what was the context, what sort of house were they in, how many other people were around, that kind of thing."

Former Canterbury University student Emily Lambie developed the methodology while studying disaster management. She earned a 10-month Fullbright Scholarship to carry on her research at California State University last year.

She made presentations on the work at several conferences while there, and said several people doing similar work had been interested in working collaboratively to develop the work.

She plans to return to Christchurch this month, and said she would like to develop her research into something "useful, usable and used" by the public.

"We really see the importance of this study, especially in the New Zealand context, so that's another motivation that keeps us progressing and thinking critically about our work," she said.

Christchurch Hospital was the only public place they could find where the full CCTV records from the February 2011 earthquake had been kept.

But Dr Wilson said they were looking into doing similar work using footage from the North Canterbury earthquake in November.