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Davis, California

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Early earthquake warning system bill passes

The earthquake early warning system, Senate Bill (SB) 135, was approved by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 24. The bill, introduced by Senator Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando), would expand the existing earthquake early warning system, the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN).

“When it comes to earthquakes in California, it is not a matter of if, but when. A fully developed earthquake early warning system will provide Californians critical seconds to take cover, assist loved ones, or pull over safely to the side of the road … Most importantly, it will save lives,” said Sen. Padilla in a released statement.

SB 135 would direct the coordination of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) with the California Seismic Safety Commission, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the California Geological Survey (CGS), UC Berkeley (UCB) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in creating a comprehensive early earthquake warning system.

“The signing of [SB] 135 by Gov. Brown is a critical step forward in our efforts to provide Californians with enough warning that an earthquake capable of producing intense ground shaking has begun, to take action, such as [taking] cover under a desk, [stopping] elevators and trains, [suspending] manufacturing or [taking] other actions that will help save lives, [reducing] injuries and [mitigating] economic and property losses,” said director of the Cal OES and Gov. Brown’s Homeland Security Advisor, Mark Ghilarducci, in a released statement.

The system would process the data from a range of seismometers around the state — located at fault lines and densely populated cities. The seismometers would process data by “primary-wave”— “p-wave”— analysis. The p-wave is the first wave that is detected, followed by the secondary “s-wave.”

Ph.D. physicist and external relations officer for the Berkeley Seismology Lab Jennifer A. Strauss explains the process of earthquake early detection.

“As you get further from the epicenter [of the earthquake] the p-wave outruns the s-wave. If you have enough seismometers around where there are faults, you can measure that first p-wave so that you can figure out when the s-wave is coming and get that out to the public,” Strauss said.

The unprecedented system would go further than the systems that are currently in place by providing the general public with systemwide automatic warning.

“We are talking tens of seconds,” Strauss said.  “We are figuring out how to craft a public system and decide what the alerts are going to look like … One major issue is that these alerts need to go out very quickly — in 20 seconds you need to get that information out. If, for example, San Francisco were to text a warning, it would take hours. This is why we are figuring out a systematic distribution method.”

In March, the pilot beta-system was able to provide a 30-second warning for the 4.7 magnitude Riverside County desert earthquake.

Deputy director for the OES Kelly Huston said that because of the unpredictable and potentially catastrophic nature of earthquakes, a systematic early detection system is imperative for the future safety of California.

“There are [many] considerations … Who would take advantage of this system and how do we pay for it? We have sub-work groups that discuss the options for funding — whether it will be federally, state or privately funded? We take advantage of the public-private partnership and are taking a comprehensive group-prioritizing approach to determine what system will work the best,” Huston said.

In Jan. 2013, the OES convened along with Caltech, UC Berkeley, Seismic Systems and California Emergency Service responders, among other organizations, to discuss the potential for an early earthquake warning system — the advantages, what people could do with the 30 seconds of warning, and the feasibility in general.

That warning would likely capitalize on the prevalence of cell phone usage; however, they are still currently working on how to craft a public system that would be most efficient in notifying the public.

“There are a lot of ideas on how it will work. The hope is to provide alerts that produce automated changes. Lets say at the time of an earthquake, a 30-second warning would allow a BART train in a tunnel the ability to take action and stop automatically. Or consider an assembly line in Silicon Valley that, with an automated heads-up could potentially stop processes and shut down to prevent catastrophic damage,” Huston said.

There are many ideas in the running that are sure to be tested in the coming months. With SB 135, the legislation makes these ideas even more feasible.

“Cell phones are a good method. Additionally, we’ll be utilizing TV and radio. Different businesses can have internal mechanisms that work best for their company protocols,” Strauss said.

The biggest challenge in question is funding for the project, which would cost an estimated $80 million, according to Strauss.

“In order to have the full-fledged program that what we think of as robust, we would need about $80 million for the first five years. The money would go to hire more people, buy a bunch more seismometers and [pay for the] cost [of] operations. For the next five years after that we would just need additional yearly funding,” Strauss said.

Full funding for the system will be determined by the OES by Jan. 1, 2016.

“Funding all depends on how complex of a system we want to have. There are a lot of players and everyone has a stake in the collaboration effort,” Huston said. “We don’t need a perfect system.”

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