Federal Funding Firms Up Earthquake Warning System’s Short-Term Future

Earthquake warning system funded for now, but long-term funding has yet to materialize.

As the ground near Piedmont, Calif., began to shake in the morning hours of Aug. 17, sensors and algorithms were busy putting together an advance earthquake alert. It was just another day and another earthquake for the ShakeAlert system.
But a California Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system is far from complete, and successes to date are almost overshadowed by slow-to-trickle-in funding. While the federal government has invested some money in the undertaking, program officials say the state of California hasn’t made an overt move to run with the fiscal ball just yet, in spite of supportive legislation.
To date the prototype system, originally put in place in California in 2012, has proved there is value to be had in knowing when the most damaging waves of an earthquake are en route. 
In 2014, when a 6.0 magnitude quake hit the city of Napa, ShakeAlert distributed a warning to its partners, like the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), roughly 10 seconds in advance of the most severe shaking.
Doug Given, geophysicist and Earthquake Early Warning coordinator with the United States Geological Survey, said the Piedmont quake was no exception to the many victories seen with the warning system.
“The system detected the event and began sending alert messages about 5 seconds after the earthquake began,” he said.
By monitoring the two types of seismic waves via sensors, the initial “p waves” and the more destructive “s waves” are quickly translated into a warning for those who might be impacted, Given said. 
“The USGS has been supporting research and development of the system since 2006 and in California, the beta version of this system went live, that is began sending alerts to outside test users, in January 2012,” Given said.
Progress on the ShakeAlert project has been positive since the USGS originally started looking at the potential for an early warning system in mid-2000. Through partnerships with numerous governmental and academic stakeholders along the West Coast, Given said the beta phases of the project have showed substantial promise.
“The technical progress is excellent, we’re moving forward. Of course we’ve made very clear the need for additional funding to fully implement the system. It’s the goal of the USGS to do that not only in California, but on the whole West Coast, including Oregon and Washington," he said, adding that $5 million in funding was received in fiscal 2015.

"We are hopeful that in the next year or two that the federal budget will include the full funding that’s needed to establish the system,” Given added.
In September 2013, California Senate Bill 135 seemed to carry the torch of the project, but failed to identify an immediate cash stream. The legislation charged the California Office of Emergency Services with finding a funding source, but made it clear that the funding could not come from the state’s general fund. 
Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer with the University California, Berkeley, said finding sufficient funding is the main impediment to the program’s growth as an everyday tool in California’s toolbox.  
Despite the successes and technical progress being made, Strauss and Given both agree that reliable cash streams continue to impede the project. 
By UC Berkeley estimates, a complete system within the state would cost around $80 million. An additional $38 million would be needed to include the entire Pacific Northwest. While this sum of nearly $120 million would get the project up and running, the amount would only cover five years of operational costs, Strauss said.
Berkeley's role lies mostly in the development of algorithms for “ElarmS,” or Earthquake Alarm Systems, and the support of what is called the “decision module tool,” which is responsible for combining data into a singular, definitive warning.
While stakeholders aren’t using the information to take what Strauss refers to as “actions,” she said accurate, reliable information is going out to program partners regularly.
“The vast majority of Bay Area users at this time are not performing actions, with the exception of the Bay Area Rapid Transit … They have an end-to-end system that pulls in triggers to slow and/or stop trains …,” Strauss said. “This is for several reasons, but one of the big ones is … that they don’t want to start budgeting … until the system is out of beta. Until they’re sure this is a long-term thing that is going to be funded, they don’t want to put their capital up, which is completely understandable.”
Strauss said the system is showing positive results from the initial algorithms to the final alerts, but also said the available funding is only a fraction of what is needed for a fully functioning early warning system.
“If it’s not fully funded, it’s never going to be a statewide public system,” she said. “Five million is great and it keeps things toodling along as it is, but it’s only one-third of what our yearly operations cost would be for a full system.”
While last Monday’s quake, a 4.0, was too close to BART’s network of tracks and trains for ShakeAlert to give substantial advance notice, BART spokesperson Taylor Huckaby said the system has been a valuable asset in the past.
During the 2014 quake in Napa, warnings issued by the system allowed enough time for the BART trains to slow to safe speeds before more destructive shaking reached the area.
In the case of the Piedmont quake, Huckaby said the trains were stopped by the BART central computer while infrastructure was assessed for safety. 
Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.