Earthquake experts, politicians and other key stakeholders are gathering in Berkeley for three days to discuss what a difference seconds can make when the big one hits, and to try to figure out how to pay for that time.
Supporters of an early-warning system say those seconds, while pricy, can be vital when it comes to warning the public of an earthquake about to roll through their neighborhood.
"Even a few seconds could let an automated system like BART slow trains," UC Berkeley spokesman Bob Sanders said on Wednesday, as the three-day International Conference on Earthquake Early Warning got underway there. "Chevron could close valves; amusement parks could halt rides."
He added that in just a few seconds, parents could have time to grab their kids and duck under a table.
In the best-case scenario, Sanders said, people would have a full minute of warning, even though he conceded that most warnings would give a 10- to 30-second notice.
The conference, which runs through Friday, comes two weeks after a magnitude-6.0 quake shook the Napa area on Aug. 24, damaging about 800 buildings and sending more than 200 people to the hospital.
The issue leaders and scientists are tackling this week is how to pay for an early-warning detection system throughout California.
The system, called ShakeAlert, is already being used by five universities and the US Geological System at a cost of $15 million a year. According to ShakeAlert, it would cost an additional $80 million over five years to fund a "robust, fully operational" system in California. Sanders said the extra $80 million is to upgrade the seismometers and transmission lines to create a reliable and fast network.
Gov. Jerry Brown is a fan of the system. In September 2013, Brown signed a bill by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando Valley) to create a statewide earthquake early warning system that would give people a 60-second heads-up about a quake. The bill states the Office of Emergency Services would have until Jan. 1, 2016, to "identify funding for the system."
There are those that are questioning the funding. Monica Cullen wrote on Facebook: "Their system knew about it just minutes before the quake hit...not worth the cash."
But no one is questioning that the system worked at Cal during the Napa quake.
The UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory director Richard Allen posted a video on Aug. 24 showing the early-warning system sent out an alert five seconds before the first waves rolled through Berkeley and 10 seconds before the strongest shaking along the Napa Fault. The alert said light shaking was expected from an estimated magnitude-5.7 quake.
The data collected uses "P-wave information," and the stronger "S-wave energy" to determine when an earthquake is about to hit, estimate the level of ground shaking, and issue a warning before significant shaking begins, according to the ShakeAlert system.
In addition to UC Berkeley and the USGS, the others that are pioneering the system include the California Institute of Technology, the Southern California Earthquake Center, the University of Washington, and the Eidgenoissische Technische Hochschule in Zurich. They are funded in part with money from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the USGS.
Sanders said the conference will focus on how countries such and Japan and Mexico have created nation-wide earthquake alerting systems, and effective strategies for building such systems in California, Canada, as well as Jordan, Pakistan, Korea, China and Mongolia, according to UC Berkeley.