ShakeAlert, the Early Earthquake Warning System, Now Operational But Not Ready for Mass Public Alerts

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The hotly anticipated West Coast earthquake early warning system being developed at Caltech will begin sending automated alerts to businesses, utilities, schools and other entities — but it's not yet ready to issue mass public notifications, officials said Wednesday.

Lawmakers joined Caltech researchers morning press conference to unveil ShakeAlert, which hopes to send residents in California, Oregon and Washington warning that strong shaking will occur where there are several seconds before it actually hits. The system works by detecting temblors, quickly analyzing the data then issuing a mobile alert.

Once it's fully off the ground, people could receive alerts about 20 seconds before a quake — a short but still potentially crucial length of time, officials said.

"That may not sound like a lot, but think about what can be done in 20 seconds," said Rep. Judy Chu. "A surgeon could safely pause an operation, potentially saving a life on the table. Trains and elevators can stop so passengers can be safe."

More than half the sensors needed to make the system fully operational have been installed, researchers said. Those devices would be used to detect the seismic waves and ultimately send off alerts.

So far, 50 organizations including schools, hospitals, utilities and public transit systems are involved in the initial rollout, which officials consider to be a pilot phase.

On Oct. 8, the Bay Area Rapid Transit conducted a ShakeAlert test on trains throughout its network, slowing the vehicles to 27 miles per hour as passengers heard a message announcing the test, according to a UC Berkeley press release.

ShakeAlert has been in the works for five years as engineers and seismologists at Berkeley, the U.S. Geological Survey, Caltech, University of Washington and University of Oregon worked with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to develop the technology, Berkeley officials said.

It's been tested other times by BART, but last week's run marked a milestone as all Bay Area schools, businesses, government agencies and utilities can sign up for the alert system, the university said.

A 20-second warning would allow for significant preparations, including opening firehouse doors so engines don't get trapped, shutting down gas or chemical lines at industrial sites and shutting off water valves to help firefighting efforts, officials said.

A newer version of the system, called ShakeAlert 2.0, collects data from the statewide seismic network and sends alert to people signed up with USGS, according to Berkeley officials.

With the San Andres fault and others bringing dangers of a massive earthquake one day, some parts of California remain particularly vulnerable.

The Inland Empire, for instance, has far fewer buildings retrofitted to deal with earthquakes than more affluent coastal areas, according to the Los Angeles Times. That region holds the intersection of three of California's most dangerous faults — the San Andreas, the San Jacinto and the Cucamonga.

A Times analysis of building and safety records revealed up to 640 buildings in more than a dozen cities in the region, from Riverside to San Bernardino, are still not retrofitted despite "decades of warnings," the newspaper reported.

"The Big One is coming," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-28th District during Wednesday's news conference. "We just don't know when, and the only question is: Will we be prepared?"

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