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Los Angeles' Earthquake Early Warning System Could Save Lives, but What About the Rest of California?

Despite its reputation for both earthquakes and high-tech innovation, the state plan has progressed sluggishly while a handful of other quake-prone countries — including Mexico — have launched successful early-warning programs.

(TNS) - With considerable fanfare, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti started the year by trumpeting a cellphone app that will instantly notify users in Los Angeles County when an earthquake of 5.0 or bigger begins to hit.

The pilot program, officially unveiled Jan. 3, can provide crucial seconds — even dozens of seconds — for people to duck and cover or otherwise take potentially lifesaving actions.

Dubbed ShakeAlertLA, it’s the first earthquake early warning system of its type in the country.

But that also means the rest of California continues without such alerts.

Despite its reputation for both earthquakes and high-tech innovation, the state plan has progressed sluggishly while a handful of other quake-prone countries — including Mexico — have launched successful early-warning programs.

Japan’s system is particularly sophisticated, with a nationwide network that not only notifies the public via cellphones but automatically addresses certain life-threatening operations, including stopping trains and opening elevator doors at the first available floor. The system has been in place since 2007.

One reason California trails those countries is that it hasn’t received the same funding priority.

“A simple answer is that seismic risk is roughly fives times greater in Japan — more faults, faults under more of the country and faster moving faults,” said USC seismologist John Vidale, former chairman of the Southern California Earthquake Center.

But funding momentum here has been growing, with last year’s federal allocation of $22.9 million doubling the previous year’s amount. State funding also hit a new high at $15 million.

“Only in the last year has the funding been nearly at the level needed,” said Tom Heaton, an engineering seismology professor overseeing Caltech’s participation in the coalition developing a statewide ShakeAlert system.

Thanks to Garcetti making early warning a priority last year, Los Angeles took the statewide ShakeAlert framework, raised an additional $600,000 in city funds and non-profit grants, and proceeded with the final steps necessary to take the program public.

Another key obstacle to a statewide launch is the cellphone networks’ ability to handle such a massive, simultaneous blast of information, according to Heaton.

“We went to the cellphone companies a few years ago and they said, ‘If you think we’re going to connect 30 million people instantaneously, it’s not going to happen,’” Heaton said.

He added that the next generation of smart phones should be up to the task and estimated that to be “a couple years away.”

A matter of seconds

It’s unclear how many of the Northridge quake’s 57 deaths and more than 8,700 injuries would have been avoided if everybody had had an alert on their cell phones.

The collapse of the wood-frame Northridge Meadows apartment building — where 16 of the 22 building-related deaths occurred — was less than three miles from the epicenter. That means it was probably too close for an alert to have arrived in time for residents to have fled the building.

But the farther people are from the epicenter, the more time there is for action. Those not so close might have had time to at least duck under a table.

“And if you’re in Anaheim when Northridge has an earthquake, that gives you 10 to 20 seconds to get out of a building,” said Nate Onderdonk, who specializes in tectonic geology at Cal State Long Beach. “This (ShakeAlertLA) app is great. I think it’s going to make a big difference, particularly when the shaking starts away from an urbanized area, but the biggest danger is in the urban area.”

It can also have an impact on the financial cost associated with a quake.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates the average annual loss to the country because of earthquakes — including hospital bills — is $6.1 billion, with $3.7 billion of that occurring in California.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti holds his phone with the newly installed ShakeAlertLA app on his phone Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Heaton said an early warning system would cut the financial damage by 10 percent to 20 percent.

“The cost of the system is quite small compared to the cost of the damage,” Heaton said.

Cost of completing the sensor network and data infrastructure for the West Coast has been pegged at $60 million by the coalition of local, state, federal and academic partners working on ShakeAlert. Annual maintenance costs will be another $38 million.

And of course, there’s the cellphone issue. In most counties, residents can sign up for local emergency-alert networks, which may work fine for floods and fires but fall short when it comes to quakes.

“If you’re sending out a weather alert, five minutes is enough time. But for earthquakes, it needs to be milliseconds to seconds,” said Ryan Arba of the state Office of Emergency Services.

He predicts a statewide system for earthquakes will be ready for the public “within the next few years, if not sooner.”

‘Plunge into the unknown’

Ideally, residents would get hours or days of advance notice of a quake, as typically occurs with hurricanes and floods.

But don’t count on that happening.

“That’s still fantasyland,” Onderdonk said.

That’s because nothing occurs immediately before a temblor to indicate shaking is imminent. So the focus is on those few precious seconds between the first rumble and the big tumble.

The next step for the ShakeAlertLA pilot program is to identify bugs, such as false alarms and delayed delivery of alerts.

“It’s still considered a test,” Heaton said. “It’s a plunge into the unknown.”

ShakeAlertLA’s cellphone alerts have the potential to warn surgeons to set down the scalpel, natural gas providers to shut down pipelines and railroad engineers to slow their trains.

But eventually, experts hope shutting down gas and oil lines, stopping trains, opening firehouse doors and similar functions will occur automatically the moment the alert is triggered.

There’s little indication that any of the Los Angeles’ neighboring counties are prepared to follow Garcetti’s lead with individual launches.

Instead, they appear likely to wait for the statewide system to go live.

“In Orange County, we’re very much supportive of (ShakeAlert), but we currently don’t have the expertise to do that,” said Donna Boston, director of her county’s Emergency Management Division. “Most of the systems we use here, we didn’t create. But we all want to have earthquake early warning.

“We’ll be end users of the state system. And we’re eager to see how L.A.’s system is working.”


©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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