Seis­mic alert sys­tem faces a rocky fu­ture

Earth­quake early warn­ing net­work takes shape, even as Trump’s bud­get pro­posal threat­ens to kill it

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Rong-Gong Lin II

While the fu­ture of the West Coast’s earth­quake early warn­ing sys­tem is in peril from Pres­i­dent Trump’s pro­posed bud­get cuts, the net­work is be­gin­ning to slowly gain trac­tion in both small and big ways.

A scat­ter­ing of build­ings are now equipped with au­di­ble alarms that will give oc­cu­pants an ad­vance warn­ing rang­ing from sec­onds to more than a minute be­fore the shak­ing from a ma­jor earth­quake be­gins.

There are even build­ings wired to pre­vent peo­ple from be­ing trapped in el­e­va­tors af­ter an earth­quake. The sys­tem is set up to trig­ger el­e­va­tors to stop at the near­est floor for oc­cu­pants to es­cape as an an­nounce­ment is si­mul­ta­ne­ously broad­cast: “Earth­quake! Earth­quake! Earth­quake! Drop, cover and hold on!”

Fa­cil­i­ties of all types are test­ing the soft­ware in con­junc­tion with the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, in­clud­ing air­ports,

hos­pi­tals, oil re­finer­ies, pipe­lines, schools and uni­ver­si­ties, said Josh Bash­ioum, founder of Early Warn­ing Labs, a com­pany in Santa Mon­ica de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy to pipe USGS warn­ings into build­ings.

At Santa Mon­ica Col­lege, In­ter­net-con­nected desk phones of a group of trained work­ers will sud­denly trans­form into speak­ers warn­ing of an im­mi­nent earth­quake, Bash­ioum said.

The ra­dio sys­tem at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios and Uni­ver­sal City’s fire sta­tion is pro­grammed to alert cru­cial staff of ex­pected shak­ing and al­low fire­fight­ers to open garage doors be­fore a pos­si­ble power out­age makes them in­op­er­a­ble, Bash­ioum said.

A lux­ury 19-story con­do­minium tower in Ma­rina del Rey, the Re­gatta Sea­side, is wired to warn res­i­dents through an ex­ist­ing pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem tied to the smoke alarms.

“I am so stoked,” said Robert Sides, gen­eral man­ager of the build­ing’s home­own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion. “You can save lives.”

In its most ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion yet, the Los An­ge­les County Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Agency is now re­ceiv­ing earth­quake early warn­ings through its rail op­er­a­tion con­trol cen­ter’s pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem.

Con­trollers are trained to “no­tify all train oper­a­tors to stop their train move­ment be­cause a pend­ing earth­quake is upon us,” re­duc­ing the threat of a de­rail­ment, said Al­don Bor­de­nave Jr., Metro’s man­ager of emer­gency and home­land se­cu­rity.

In the oil and gas in­dus­try, a few sec­onds’ warn­ing may be enough to have crews man­u­ally shut down cer­tain pipe­lines pump­ing fuel at high pres­sure — or to do so au­to­mat­i­cally — and there­fore avoid un­con­trol­lable gey­sers of petroleum prod­ucts spilling from a bro­ken pipe and pos­ing an ex­plo­sive haz­ard, Bash­ioum said.

Hos­pi­tals, Bash­ioum said, are test­ing vis­ual no­ti­fi­ca­tions that can sig­nal to op­er­at­ing room staff that an earth­quake is com­ing so sur­geons can re­move their scalpels and shut off electric cau­ter­iz­ers to pre­vent fires. Hos­pi­tals could even shut down coolant sys­tems, which if bro­ken dur­ing a quake could re­lease toxic chem­i­cals through­out the build­ing.

The progress comes a year ahead of the USGS timetable for a lim­ited pub­lic re­lease of the early warn­ing sys­tem. In April, Los An­ge­les Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged in his State of the City ad­dress that, by the end of 2018, there would be a de­ploy­ment of “an earth­quake early warn­ing sys­tem to ev­ery cor­ner of this city — in schools, at busi­nesses, even on your smart­phone. It will give you a head start when an earth­quake is com­ing — pre­cious sec­onds that save lives.”

Yet the rapid progress could all un­ravel if Trump’s bud­get is ap­proved. The Depart­ment of the In­te­rior is propos­ing no fund­ing for the sys­tem this year and “would end USGS ef­forts to im­ple­ment the ShakeAlert earth­quake early warn­ing sys­tem, sus­pend­ing in­ter­nal ef­forts and elim­i­nat­ing ex­ter­nal fund­ing to part­ners” such as Cal­tech, UC Berke­ley, the Univer­sity of Ore­gon and the Univer­sity of Washington.

Seismologist Lucy Jones, who for­merly worked for the USGS, said she imag­ines that such a de­ci­sion would crip­ple the ShakeAlert pro­gram.

End­ing fed­eral in­volve­ment in the sys­tem would prompt sci­en­tists to leave the project, Jones said. The early warn­ing pro­gram needs dozens of re­searchers con­tin­u­ally im­prov­ing the soft­ware, mon­i­tor­ing and op­er­at­ing the sys­tem, and in­stalling and re­pair­ing seis­mic sen­sors, she said.

“We are on the cusp of it re­ally mak­ing a dif­fer­ence here in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia,” Jones said in an in­ter­view. With­out the USGS’ lead­er­ship, “it would have to start over from a very ba­sic level.”

The USGS and its part­ner uni­ver­si­ties have spent years de­vel­op­ing the sys­tem. Other na­tions, in­clud­ing Ja­pan, Mex­ico, Tai­wan and Turkey, al­ready have op­er­a­tional sys­tems. In Ja­pan, the early warn­ings are a part of life — school­child­ren are trained to drop, cover and hold on when they are hear alerts; TV shows are in­ter­rupted by a fa­mil­iar chime and an an­nouncer who pro­vides de­tails of the ex­pected shak­ing; and cell­phones au­to­mat­i­cally broad­cast au­di­ble alerts.

Of­fi­cials de­scribed the pro­posed $10.2-mil­lion cut to the In­te­rior Depart­ment bud­get as “sen­si­ble and ra­tio­nal re­duc­tions and mak­ing hard choices to reach a bal­anced bud­get by 2027.” Over­all, Trump’s bud­get boosted de­fense spend­ing and made cuts else­where.

The earth­quake early warn­ing sys­tem works on a sim­ple prin­ci­ple: The shak­ing from an earth­quake trav­els at the speed of sound through rock — slower than the speed of to­day’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems. For ex­am­ple, it would take more than a minute for a mag­ni­tude 7.8 earth­quake that started at the Sal­ton Sea to shake up Los An­ge­les, 150 miles away, trav­el­ing along the state’s long­est fault, the San An­dreas.

The sys­tem needs $38.3 mil­lion to be fully built out and $16.5 mil­lion a year to op­er­ate and main­tain it, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has al­ready in­vested $23 mil­lion in the sys­tem; Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers and Gov. Jerry Brown last year ap­proved $10 mil­lion. Los An­ge­les has also di­rected money for the in­stal­la­tion of seis­mic sen­sors in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Jones said.

“If we take out that cen­ter pin of the USGS fund­ing, the in­vest­ment of ev­ery­body else also goes to naught,” Jones told re­porters at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day at Cal­tech.

Jones added that the na­tion would ben­e­fit if the West Coast is bet­ter pre­pared for earth­quakes. The na­tion’s two busiest ports — Los An­ge­les and Long Beach — to­gether han­dle about 40% of the coun­try’s im­ports ar­riv­ing in con­tain­ers.

“Their paths out to the rest of the coun­try have to cross the San An­dreas fault to get to ev­ery­body else,” Jones said.

Rep. Adam Schiff (DBur­bank) said the cost of the early warn­ing sys­tem is a bar­gain com­pared with the price tag if an earth­quake strikes with no warn­ing.

“The White House de­ci­sion to elim­i­nate sup­port is in­cred­i­bly mis­guided and danger­ous, and un­der­cuts the $23 mil­lion al­ready in­vested in the pro­gram,” Schiff said at the news con­fer­ence.

Schiff sounded hope­ful that Congress would re­verse Trump’s pro­posal. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), chair­man of a key House sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees ap­pro­pri­a­tions for the Depart­ment of the In­te­rior, last week said he has been at the “fore­front of ad­vo­cat­ing for fund­ing of the pro­gram, in­clud­ing the $10.2 mil­lion in fund­ing that was signed into law ear­lier this year.”

One of Cal­i­for­nia’s most danger­ous faults, the San Jac­into fault, lies un­der Calvert’s con­gres­sional district. Sci­en­tists say the San Jac­into fault is ca­pa­ble of mov­ing to­gether with the San An­dreas and pro­duc­ing a mag­ni­tude 7.5 earth­quake.

Schiff and Jones ex­pressed hope the sys­tem would be­come ac­tive be­fore the next big earth­quake.

“When you look around the world, these sys­tems have been es­tab­lished af­ter a lot of peo­ple died in a big earth­quake,” Jones said, tick­ing off sev­eral ex­am­ples:

Mex­ico lost 10,000 peo­ple in 1985.

Ja­pan lost 5,000 peo­ple in 1995.

Turkey lost 17,000 peo­ple in 1999.

And China lost 80,000 peo­ple in 2008.

“Each of those then trig­gered the devel­op­ment of an early warn­ing sys­tem in those coun­tries,” Jones said. “It’ll be a shame if we only get it be­cause we kill a lot of peo­ple.”

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

SEISMOLOGIST LUCY JONES, joined by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Bur­bank), demon­strates the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the West Coast earth­quake alert sys­tem. Jones said Pres­i­dent Trump’s bud­get could crip­ple the pro­gram.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

L.A. METRO re­ceives seis­mic warn­ings, al­low­ing oper­a­tors to stop trains be­fore a quake hits, re­duc­ing the threat of de­rail­ments.

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