California Getting Earthquake Early Warning System Ready

In a year or two, state residents will get alerts of impending temblors through cellphones and other devices

Californians will begin getting warnings of impending earthquakes through their cellphones, radios and other devices within the next year or two as the state ramps up a lifesaving early warning system, emergency management officials said Thursday.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to develop the statewide warning system Thursday. Combined with $10 million from the state budget Brown approved earlier this year, California has the pieces in place to begin rolling out the warning system called ShakeAlert, said Mark Ghilarducci, head of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Seismic early warning systems are designed to detect the first shock waves from a large jolt, calculate the strength and alert people before the slower but damaging waves spread. Mexico, China and Japan are among the countries already using them.

In the United States, California is furthest along in developing early warnings that federal officials hope to expand to Oregon and Washington.

"After the quake hits and the shaking stops, we want our citizens to bounce back, to survive. But we also want our businesses to recover rapidly," Ghilarducci said at a news conference at the state emergency response headquarters in Rancho Cordova, outside Sacramento. "We honestly believe by implementing this it will help in that endeavor."

Early warning can allow train operators to slam on the breaks, surgeons to pull their sharp tools out of a patient's body and schoolchildren and office workers to duck and cover. Automated systems can open fire station doors and shut down gas lines to allow for a quick emergency response and limit fire damage.

Twenty seconds of warning would allow a Bay Area Rapid Transit train to slow from 70 mph to 10 mph, significantly reducing the likelihood of a deadly derailment, said John McPartland, a BART board member.

BART is among a small group of hand-picked users testing out a prototype warning system in Northern and Southern California. BART's Oakland center got about nine seconds of warning before shaking from the 2014 Napa earthquake struck, though it was the middle of the night and no trains were running, said Dr. Jennifer Strauss of the University of California, Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

Making the warning system work for the whole state will require a significant expansion of earthquake sensors to allow computers to quickly detect an earthquake and accurately discern its strength. Advances in notification technology will be needed so cellphones beep within seconds; the technology that allows smartphone users to get Amber Alerts and weather warnings is too slow for earthquake warnings to be useful.

It will also require public education so people know what to do when they hear an earthquake is about to strike, Ghilarducci said.

The amount of warning will vary from none to tens of seconds or even minutes in the case of a big quake, said Doug Given, early warning coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena. It takes about four seconds for sensors to detect an earthquake and determine it's strong enough to merit public notification, he said. The amount of warning for an individual will depend on his or her distance from the epicenter and the speed of the notification technology.

The bill Brown signed Thursday, SB438, repeals a ban on using the state general fund for earthquake notification and outlines the bureaucratic oversight for the program.

"Just a few seconds can prevent devastating and life-threatening injuries," said Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat who wrote the bill.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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