NEWS FROM Washington » Adam Schiff

U.S. Needs to Catch Up on Implementing Earthquake Early Warning System

While the United States is the most technologically advanced country in the world, we still lag dangerously behind other countries in implementing one key technology that can save lives, property and infrastructure – an earthquake early warning system.

Imagine getting a warning a few seconds or up to a minute before an earthquake hits. It would allow doctors crucial seconds to stop a complicated surgery. It could enable trains to brake, sensitive manufacturing processes to cease, and critical transportation infrastructure to be locked down. And it could allow us precious time to move away from windows or locate our children in the house. It might sound like science fiction – indeed it’s the stuff of Hollywood movies – but the technology exists, and we’ve fallen behind other earthquake-prone countries like Japan and Mexico that already have already put into place public earthquake early warning systems.

Sadly, the U.S. has only begun to invest in such a system and we may be in a race against time. An earthquake early warning system has been in development for years now – created by Caltech, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington, in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey. Test users along the West Coast have been successfully receiving warnings, although the system is far from built-out with only a fraction of the necessary seismic sensors in place. The stumbling block – as it often is in government these days – is funding, which will need to come from private, state and federal government sources.

It’s no surprise that for a full West Coast system, the effectiveness and reliability of the warning largely depends on the number and placement of the sensors to ensure that there is adequate coverage wherever an earthquake may hit. It is estimated that the system would cost about $38 million to build out along the west coast, with $16.1 million a year in operating and maintenance costs. This may seem like an exorbitant sum, but with earthquakes costing the United States an average of $5.3 billion a year, and $3.5 billion in California alone, this comparatively small investment is well worth the cost.

And even in a budget-conscious Congress, we’ve had some success. Working with Sen. Feinstein, I was able to secure $5 million specifically for this system last year in the annual full-year funding bill that passed in December. But it’s not going to be enough.

That’s why we have been pressing the White House and our colleagues to prioritize this funding for future years, as well. Just last month, President Obama heard our calls and included another $5 million in funding for the system in his budget – the first time the President has ever made such a funding request.

But we can’t let up even with this success. This week, over 30 of my colleagues from California, Oregon, Washington and beyond joined me in pressing the Appropriations Committee to put up enough money to transition the earthquake early warning demonstration project into a fully-fledged and operating system. It’s our hope that we won’t have to keep fighting year after year for this vital funding. But until that becomes reality, we must persist. It is a race against time.

Federal investments cannot be the only source of funding for this important emergency system. Western states that have the most to lose from an earthquake need to step up. For example, Gov. Brown signed SB 135, legislation that called for a statewide early warning system, but did not provide any of the state funds needed for it. It’s imperative that state and private organizations do their part, just as the federal government has begun to do its responsibility.

There’s no doubt that the “big one” will hit California and the West Coast sometime in the future – the only question is when and where. Let’s make sure we are prepared.

Rep. Adam Schiff represents the 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, which includes La Crescenta, Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge, and many of the surrounding foothills communities.