California’s ShakeAlert Earthquake System to Test in Bay Area

The state’s earthquake early warning system is roughly half complete, with 616 of 1,115 ground sensors in place, but is on track to be fully operational in the next several years, according to U.S. Geological Survey officials.

by Lisa M. Krieger, The Mercury News / March 27, 2019
Shutterstock/Belish

(TNS) — In a major sign that California’s earthquake early warning system is moving forward, officials are testing the program in downtown Oakland on Wednesday morning.

Like the familiar Amber Alert, starting at 11 a.m., the ShakeAlert will blare from smartphones in a 60-block area, announcing: “This is a test of the California Earthquake warning system. No action required. This is a test.”

Then users will be asked to complete a survey that will reveal whether the exercise – the first public trial in the Bay Area — was a success. Experts will measure how long it took for the message to reach people.

In a real earthquake, the message would be different: Drop, cover and hold on.

“We want to determine if a wireless emergency alert is a feasible solution,” said Ryan Arba of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, which is partnering with the United States Geological Survey, city of Oakland and Alameda County on the exercise.

“The Bay Area has a very high seismic risk,” he said, “but there are steps that we can take, not only as individuals but also as governments, to help give people as much protection as possible from that eventual earthquake.”

The warning system could save lives by instructing people to seek cover or find a safer place to ride out the quake.

Eventually, it may be possible to trigger lifesaving actions such as stopping BART and other transit systems, shutting off gas lines to help prevent fires, opening doors at fire stations to ensure that engines aren’t trapped inside, and stopping elevators at the closest floors.

Several countries, including Japan, Mexico, China, Turkey and Romania, already have earthquake warning systems in place.

After more than a decade of development, California’s ShakeAlert system has 616 seismic sensors near major faults and population centers in California, said Robert-Michael de Groot, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who is one of the coordinators of the ShakeAlert system.

The system is about half finished. With recently secured state and federal funding, California’s network of 1,115 seismic sensors should be completed within the next several years. Most are located on or near major faults and population centers along the coast.

The early warning system operates on a simple principle: The shaking from an earthquake generates waves in the ground. Sensors quickly send automated signals to monitoring centers in Seattle, Menlo Park, Berkeley and Pasadena. Within about 5 seconds, computer algorithms will then analyze the data to rapidly identify the epicenter and strength of the earthquake and decide whether the temblor will be powerful enough to warrant an alert.

If sensors detect a magnitude 5.0 or greater earthquake, a message is sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for distribution.

Authorities aren’t sure how long it’ll take for FEMA to issue the alert, which will be transmitted over cell towers by the three major cell phone carriers and then delivered to customers’ phones.

The notification can be sent to cell phones regardless of whether residents have opted-in. This system, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), blankets an area with a warning.

But its geographical targeting, based on a labyrinth of cell towers and a honeycomb of tower signal “sectors,” lacks some precision – so Wednesday’s alert may overshoot or undershoot the desired alert area.

There also is concern that the system isn’t currently fast enough for earthquake warnings. Cellphone alerts can take tens of seconds, or even minutes, to be delivered.

Officials also are studying how to send follow-up messages in the event of false alerts, delayed or missed alerts or warnings about major earthquakes that trigger alerts but pose no threat because they’re so far away.

USGS started developing ShakeAlert in 2006 with the help of partners that include UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology and the Southern California Earthquake Center. The project has received more than $100 million in funding from the federal government, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and private sources such as the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. In his first budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom in January set aside $16.3 million from the state’s general fund to complete the system.

Oakland was chosen for Wednesday’s test because civic leaders are serious about earthquake preparedness, Arba said. And downtown’s small test zone has several government agencies and businesses that were willing to volunteer and respond to the survey.

“We strongly believe in the system,” said Arba. “This test tomorrow is our opportunity to see if something that exists in people’s cell phones today can be used as a pathway to deliver these alerts.”

For more information on the test and how to participate by filling out a survey, please visit www.caloes.ca.gov/eew .

Take the test:

1) Before the test starts, using either your cell phone or your desktop computer go to the official web site www.time.is. Make sure that your correct time zone is being reflected in the readout.

2) Starting a few minutes in advance of the scheduled alert time (11:00 a.m. PDT), keep a close watch on your cell phone and the official time and note the exact time — to the nearest second, if you can — at which the alert first arrives on your phone. This alert will have the heading “Emergency Alert,” and this message: “TEST of the CA Earthquake Warning System. No action required. THIS IS A TEST.”

3) Please take this survey armed with the time (to the second) you received the alert.

©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.