California Officials Target 2016 for Earthquake Early Warning System

The system will give 10 seconds to a minute or more warning that a major earthquake is about to hit.

by Jim Steinberg, San Bernardino County Sun / October 17, 2014
Dan Kavarian, chief building official for the city of Napa, walks around the downtown area red tagging buildings that were deemed unsafe after a 6.0 earthquake hit the area on Aug. 24, 2014. (Rick Loomis/ Los Angeles Times/MCT)

(MCT) — California is on track to deliver, within two years, an earthquake early warning system that can give 10 seconds to a minute or more warning that a major earthquake is about to hit, officials said Thursday.

The development of such a system would enable gas and electric utilities, railroad operators, crane operators and people time to take evasive action, said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima. His Senate Bill 135 mandated that an early-warning system be developed.

The bill, which went into effect in January, required the state Office of Emergency Services to develop a statewide earthquake early warning system to alert Californians in advance of dangerous shaking.

The initial cost to build and operate the system for five years is $80 million.

On Thursday, Padilla said that state Office of Emergency Services officials have told him the system is on track to be operational by January 2016.

Officials from that office could not be reached Thursday.

“If a state had such as system, it would help Californians prepare ahead of time for a disaster and potentially reduce the potential for injury,” said Brett McPherson, director of environmental health and safety for Loma Linda University Medical Center.

“It runs reasonably well,” said Tom Heaton, a professor of engineering seismology at Pasadena’s Caltech, of the prototype system that is being tested by San Bernardino County Fire Department and others that Heaton declined to identify.

The city of Los Angeles Fire Department would soon be joining the testing effort, said LAFD Capt. Jaime Moore said.

Mike Antonucci, emergency manager for San Bernardino County’s Office of Emergency Services, said the system would give a 10-second warning for a quake 40 miles away and 20 seconds for one 60 miles away.

Construction of this prototype system had begun before Padilla’s legislation.

Heaton, who has been working with the concept since 1985, says “its biggest strength” would be the warning it could give businesses, emergency service providers, hospitals and residents down the line.

One of the more sophisticated elements of the system is that it will quickly decide the direction of the quake and then send the warning only to locations in the earthquake’s path.

Although there is a prototype system in place, many, many more sensors are need to be placed before it is ready for rollout on a statewide basis, and funding is needed for a robust operating and programming staff to operate it on a 24/7 basis, Heaton said.

Although the legislation had no funding, Padilla said last month that “we are working on continuing to identify funding and move this project forward so that Californians are provided the benefits of an early -warning system sooner, rather than later.”

“This system would be huge,” said Kurt Kainsinger, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, UCLA Health System.

“Even five or 10 seconds would be a critical time for the infrastructure of the community,” he said.

In a hospital scenario, “10 seconds is a lifetime,” he said. This would include the things a nurse could do to protect a patient, he said, as well as “powering down” sophisticated MRI, CT and lab equipment, preventing their destruction during impact.

Physicians could stop midstream with surgeries, possibly before beginning a risky part of the procedure, he said.

Antonucci said that the system’s reliability has improved dramatically since San Bernardino County has entered the testing program 18 months ago.

©2014 the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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