Quake warning system explored at White House

A White House summit on earthquake preparedness Tuesday included an extensive discussion of a new early warning system that reached a milestone in its development Monday.

The ShakeAlert system entered a prototype phase Monday, allowing selected early adopters to develop pilot implementations. The program is being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey along with state government and university partners.

Eventually, the ShakeAlert system is intended to alert people in advance of major earthquakes through warnings on cellphones, on TV and on the radio. It can potentially automatically stop elevators and let people off at the nearest floor, slow trains down to prevent derailments and halt heavy machinery.

Similar systems have been used in Japan and Mexico for years but took massive deadly quakes to spur their development. U.S. seismologists are hoping to get an early warning system for the West Coast deployed before the next big quake.

BART Director John McPartland attended today’s White House Earthquake Resilience Summit to discuss BART’s early adoption of the technology. BART has been receiving early warnings since 2012 and received a 10-second warning before a 6.0-magnitude earthquake hit the Napa Valley in August 2014.

The Napa quake hit in the early morning, before BART had opened, but during service hours the warning would allow BART to slow or stop trains, preventing derailments. Thirty seconds of warning would be enough to stop a train going 70 mph, the maximum speed for BART trains, McPartland said.

This is extremely important because a BART derailment at peak time could potentially injure as many as 1,500 people, further straining already exhausted public safety resources in the event of a major earthquake, McPartland said.

BART has invested over $1 billion in earthquake retrofit in recent years to prevent tracks and tunnels from being damaged in a quake, but as McPartland said:

“It’s of little value if we end up having derailments, and that’s where the value of the earthquake early warning system comes in,”

Richard Allen, director of the Seismological Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, a partner in developing the ShakeAlert system, also attended the White House summit today and said the system is capable of providing 20-30 seconds of warning.

About half the injuries caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake were caused by falling objects, Allen said. If everyone received enough warning to drop, take cover and hold on before the shaking started, potentially half the injuries suffered could be avoided.

Announcements could be extremely broad. Phones, computers, TV, radio, and even public address systems at offices and schools could broadcast warnings before an earthquake. In addition to trains, elevators and heavy machinery could be linked to the system to automatically stop, hazardous chemicals could be isolated and data could be moved to a secure location, Allen said:

“This isn’t a pipe dream, this is a technology that exists, this is a technology that has been proven in the U.S.”

In addition to BART, the police force at UC Berkeley has been using the technology in recent years as well, he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Los Angeles, likened the technology to a phone conversation he had with his brother when he felt an earthquake about 10 seconds before his brother did.

But while the technology has been in use for years in countries like Japan, Mexico, Turkey and Romania, it has only been the last few years that support and funding has been forthcoming from the federal government, Schiff said:

“It really to me is mind boggling that it has taken this country so long as prone as we are to earthquakes.”