California received funding to help build an earthquake warning system across the state next year that would provide enough time for trains to brake, utilities to shut off gas lines and people to dive under a table until the shaking stops.
Scientists have tried to make the public alert system available, but money has been a problem. Now, $5 million has been allocated in a major spending bill approved by Congress, according to a joint statement Monday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank.
Feinstein called it "a down payment" and added that "more funding is necessary to complete the system."
"The timeline is almost entirely dependent on further funding," Schiff said.
It would expand a limited program developed by the California Institute of Technology; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Washington in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey.
"It would undoubtedly be an incremental rollout. You'll see it in industrialized applications first, in transportation in those more mechanized types of responses," USGS Early Warning Coordinator Doug Given said. The public rollout will be the last step ... primarily because it will take a lot of public education and training so people know how to respond once they get the alerts."
California trails Japan, Mexico and other earthquake-prone areas in developing a public alert system, which provides several seconds of warning to surrounding areas after a fault ruptures.
Seismic early warning systems are designed to detect the first shock waves from a large jolt, calculate their strength and alert people before the slower but damaging waves spread.
A comprehensive statewide system would cost an estimated $80 million for the first five years of operation.
The systems can't predict quakes and are most useful during big events where it would be meaningful to warn people far away to expect strong shaking, scientists said.
Several moderate earthquakes this year in Southern California produced successful early warnings. Officials testing the system in San Francisco got eight seconds of warning before strong shaking arrived from the 6.0-magnitude earthquake near Napa in August.