Japan’s early warning system for major earthquakes and tsunamis likely saved thousands of lives when a magnitude 9.0 temblor rumbled offshore of the nation’s east coast on March 11. The quake set off a 30-foot-high tsunami that inundated many coastal communities.

The nation’s interconnected warning system, which links together public and private infrastructure, is capable of slowing high-speed trains, stopping elevators and delivering warning alerts to citizens through a variety of devices, including radio, TV, text messaging and loudspeakers.

Nevertheless, more than 25,000 people were killed or are missing — the second-worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.

Like Japan, the U.S. West Coast and sections of the Midwest sit atop active seismic zones. But there are several key differences in the two industrialized nations.

“Here in the U.S. we don’t have a comparable earthquake warning system. It’s something we should consider, especially for regions that are most prone to earthquakes,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in remarks Tuesday, May 3, prior to a FEMA forum on earthquake communications preparedness.

Panel experts conceded that a U.S. early warning system is only in nascent stages. California is currently testing warning technology, but it’s only a prototype, said David Applegate, senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards for the U.S. Geological Survey. The U.S. also doesn’t have an overarching national warning system for tsunamis, though Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington each have their own, according to William Carwile, associate administrator of response and recovery at FEMA.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said social media and smartphones could conceivably be part of a national warning system. Smartphones can be thought of as data points and sensors in a disaster. The accelerometers included in newer mobile devices could be used to detect earthquake motion, he said. The data could be integrated in a crowdsourcing application that automatically triggers earthquake warning systems.

“This isn’t science fiction. We’ve got all the pieces,” he said.

By all accounts, Japan’s early warning system has been a standout success. But the system isn’t foolproof. The Japan Meteorological Agency has sent out 70 earthquake alerts for magnitude 5.0 or greater quakes since March, due to the big aftershocks following the main quake. But 17 of them were false alarms and 20 earthquakes were missed altogether, according to a representative from the Japan embassy. In some cases, the nation has had difficulty collecting sensor data because of communications outages and blackouts.

An FCC analysis revealed staggering damage to Japan’s infrastructure: 65,000 telephone poles were destroyed, 1 million wire line connections were lost, 500,000 broadband lines were knocked out, and three of seven undersea broadband pipes were severely damaged. Two-thirds of the base stations in the impacted area were out, damaging the nation’s wireless connectivity.

But less than two months later, most of that infrastructure is back. An FCC analyst called it a remarkable recovery.

Forum panelists said Japan understood that backup power was vital to its recovery and continuing operation of its communications equipment. Thousands of roads were washed out, so it has been difficult to deliver fuel to backup generators. But Japan had the foresight to codify backup power into national law. There are no similar rules in the U.S., said John Healy, associate chief of the FCC’s Cybersecurity and Communications Reliability Division.

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor