California Looks to Mexico to Implement Similar Earthquake Warning System

Up to a minute before the 7.2 earthquake shook southern Mexico Friday afternoon, millions of people 225 miles north of the capital were alerted. Sirens alarmed and phones vibrated warning them of impending shaking allowing many to evacuate.

The early warning system there has been in place since the 90s, but California still does not have a widely used public system like it. 

Researchers at the Berkeley Seismology Lab say it’s difficult to compare the two areas. Mexico City is hundreds of miles from its most active fault while the Bay Area sits on top of its most active fault.

ShakeAlert Regional Coordinator Jennifer Strauss says the early warning system in Mexico can receive information, and disseminate it 10 seconds later to still give people a minute’s notice in the capital. That technology would be too slow for the Bay Area, because we may only have 10-second warnings to begin with due to the fault’s proximity. 

“Right now we don't have the infrastructure to send alerts to every single person living on the west coast of the United States instantaneously,” Strauss said. 

Strauss says there are two main issues with getting the ShakeAlert early warning system up and running: funding and infrastructure. She says operational costs of running the system after it’s online is $16 million a year. Congress is working on funding the program. Researchers also only have about half of the earthquake monitors they need up and down the West Coast. 

Still, Strauss says the early warning system is being used in some school districts, healthcare facilities, and emergency operations centers. It’s also used by BART, so a train could be stopped seconds before shaking begins. 

“We feel those have the biggest impacts for the public and for resiliency and recovery,” Strauss said. 

Researchers say phones still need to be updated to receive the alerts once the system is online.

Because of those factors, they expect it’ll take another three to seven years until Californians get alerted like the people of Mexico did Friday.

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