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Bay Area Transit Upgrades Earthquake Warning Tech

Officials say ShakeAlert 2.0 will automatically stop BART trains before an earthquake strikes, giving riders an opportunity to take cover.

(TNS) — BERKELEY, Calif. — Passengers riding BART may be better protected in the event of an earthquake after the agency on Monday rolled out a newly-upgraded earthquake alert system.

The first of its kind in the country, it automatically slows trains before an earthquake strikes, giving riders anywhere from a few seconds to a full minute to drop, cover and hold on.

It’s one of the ways the transit agency, which provides some 432,000 trips each weekday, has been preparing for the next big one, along with a $1.3 billion seismic retrofit of its oldest stations, which is expected to be completed in 2022.

But the system, called ShakeAlert 2.0, isn’t limited to BART’s tracks or stations. It’s part of a network of sensors in California and two other states that allows manufacturers, public utilities, fire departments and other organizations to establish their own protocols for preventative actions when quakes strike — opening firehouse doors so engines don’t become trapped, for example, or shutting down gas or chemical lines to prevent fires or leaks.

Those extra seconds are crucial when it comes to saving lives and preventing injuries, said Jennifer Strauss, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley who sits on a national committee for the ShakeAlert system.

“Our hope is that we can protect people in California, whether they are riding on a transportation system, or they are in a hospital or their kids are at school,” she said. “If you can give people a couple seconds to drop, cover or hold on … we really think that will reduce injuries and deaths.”

Developed by the U.S. Geological Survey, UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, and the universities of Washington and Oregon, with help from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in California, the system uses a network of more than 800 sensors across California, Oregon and Washington. Those sensors read deep waves in the ground, called p-waves, that occur during an earthquake and move the ground up and down, Strauss said.

That up-and-down motion doesn’t impact buildings or people as much as the second set of waves, called s-waves, that shake the ground from side to side, she said. The farther away a fire station, hospital or train track is from the epicenter of the earthquake, the more warning they will have that the ground is about to start shaking side-to-side, Strauss said.

“People right on top of the epicenter, they might not get an early warning,” she said. “They might get a late warning because everything is happening at the same time.”

BART was an early adopter of the initial system and has been slowing or stopping trains in advance of expected shaking for several years, BART officials said. The new system provides more information about the quake: how far away the epicenter is and the estimated magnitude. It also notifies agency officials to whether the shaking is expected to be light, moderate or severe, Strauss said.

The state and federal governments have already provided $71.3 million to implement the system, but Stauss said more funding is needed to allow each agency to build out its earthquake-monitoring networks and to nearly double the number of sensors it’s using to cover the entire state, along with Washington and Oregon. So far, she said, the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle-Tacoma have been fully built out.

There is no way right now, however, to alert the public directly through this system, she said. But, the USGS is inviting developers as part of a pilot program to create apps that use the ShakeAlert notifications. Those notifications could get sent to people’s cellphones, bringing real-time earthquake warnings to the general public, much like what is already in place in Japan and Mexico.

©2018 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.