Early Warning System Still on Waiting List

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While a nationwide early earthquake warning system has yet to be implemented, the ShakeAlert system supplied 10 seconds of warning for the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory just before Sunday’s 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck in Napa. Currently in a beta testing phase, the system monitors P-waves, energy radiating from quakes that precede the damage-inducing S-waves.

Margaret Vinci of Caltech’s seismological laboratory says that the few seconds’ warning from a statewide or nationwide warning system “would provide people with the ability to get to a safe place before damage hits their location.”

But such a system has not been implemented in California, despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing a bill in September 2013 for that purpose. SB 135, authored by Senator Alex Padilla, would direct the development of a statewide early earthquake warning system, estimated initially to cost $80 million. Thus far, the funds have not been obtained for the system.

Recent efforts to secure funds for an early warning system have been made by 25 members of the House of Representatives from California, Oregon and Washington requesting that the House Appropriations Committee fund an early warning system. Despite the members requesting $16 million, only $5 million has been included in the Fiscal Year 2015 Interior and Environmental Appropriations Bill towards the warning system, to be voted on later this year.

“Test after test of the prototype earthquake early warning system has proved its effectiveness and worth – now it’s time for all parties to step up to the plate and fully fund this system so it can be built out along the entire West Coast,” said Congressman Adam Schiff. “I want to commend Senator Feinstein for her efforts to appropriate $5 million in the Senate as we have done in the House. We must now look to state government leaders and private industry to help match the federal commitment.”

Senator Diane Feinstein weighed in on the proposed early warning system in a press release.

“I believe an integrated earthquake early-warning system is essential to save lives and property,” stated Feinstein in the release. “Two bills from the Senate Appropriations Committee move us toward that goal. The bill to fund the Department of the Interior includes $5 million to begin work on an early-warning system, while the bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security urges FEMA to prioritize grant funds for such a system. These bills will advance this fall and I will continue to prioritize funding for this system.

“What we need is the political resolve to deploy such a system. Officials in Washington and along the West Coast should partner with the private sector to make an interoperable earthquake early-warning system a reality, and we should do so as soon as possible before a much larger earthquake strikes.”

Earthquake prone Japan employs a comprehensive early warning system, which has provided the Japanese with the ability to warn the public of impending earthquakes since 2007. The ultimate test of its effectiveness came in 2011, when Japan was hit with 9.0 magnitude quake, the largest earthquake in recorded Japanese history. Warnings were sent to the general public via phone, Internet, radio and television about eight seconds after the first P-wave. Automated operations were halted to prevent further deaths and/or injuries, such as trains slowing, and elevators, factory machinery and nuclear power plants were shut down. Information is collected by the more than 3,600 Seismic Intensity Meters throughout the country and then disseminated by the Japanese Meteorological Agency.

According to Vinci, California has had sensors in place to detect earthquakes since the 1920s, a number which has grown from six to around 400, sitting about 50 miles apart throughout the state. These sensors have contributed to the program that  is being tested by the United States Geological Survey, Caltech and the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, among other organizations, the program which detected the Napa earthquake, as well as earthquakes in La Habra and Westwood earlier this year.

Though an early warning system is not yet in place, there remain considerations other than funding. Though a few seconds may be enough time to retreat to safety, will people know what to do with those seconds?

“Education will be a huge part of the early warning system,” said Vinci. “It’s not enough just to give people the alert. What will you do with it?”

The ideal warning system will tell people how long until the earthquake hits, whether or not there will be shaking and what the intensity of the shaking will be (an important distinction from the magnitude of an earthquake).

In addition to phone, Internet and televised notifications, Vinci said that warnings should be made available at large public gatherings such as concerts and sporting events. Automated shutdowns will include trains and factories just as Japan’s system does, as well as the shutdown of computer systems to mitigate the loss of important information.

“We’ve even consulted sociologists to see what will be most effective for the warnings, what will alert people without scaring them,” Vinci added.

SB 135 calls for funding to be identified by 2016, none of which can come from California’s general fund.

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