Earthquake Early Warning System Making Public Debut This Week Powered by System Developed in Pasadena

Published : Friday, January 4, 2019 | 6:20 AM

Robert de Groot of the United States Geological Survey and ProfessorTom Heaton of Caltech's Seismology Laboratory have worked for years developing the system which powers the new earthquake early warning smartphone app. Image of Professor Heaton courtesy of Caltech

A new mobile app powered by a system developed largely in Pasadena will soon start sounding alarms in pockets and purses across Los Angeles County to let residents know an earthquake is seconds away, creators said.

ShakeAlertLA can be downloaded free on both Apple and Android devices.

•   Download on the Google Play Store
•   Download on the Apple App Store

The software arrived on the Apple Store and Android Market on Monday. The Android version alone has since been downloaded more than 10,000 times.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti hosted a news conference Thursday to formally announce the public rollout of the app, created in partnership with the city of Los Angeles.

“We created the ShakeAlertLA app because getting a few seconds’ heads-up can make a big difference if you need to pull to the side of the road, get out of an elevator, or drop, cover, and hold on,” Garcetti said in a written statement.

Much of the ShakeAlert system that powers the app was developed in Pasadena, where scientists like Robert de Groot of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Professor Tom Heaton of Caltech’s Seismology Laboratory have been working to build and perfect it for decades.

“I first got involved in early warning in 1979,” he said. “I was just starting out, and I’m about to retire now. So basically my entire career.”

Funding has always been the biggest obstacle, Heaton said. But that has begun to change over the past two years.

He credited both private donors and government sources for the funds. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, led a bipartisan effort to secure money for the project.

A $260,000 donation from the Annenberg Foundation helped get the app up and running, according to Garcetti’s office.

Earthquakes are a fact of life in the Los Angeles area, Annenberg Foundation Chairman and CEO Wallis Annenberg said.

“That’s why early earthquake warnings must also be a fact of life — on our phones and on our tablets the very moment they’re available,” he said. “The ShakeAlertLA app is an extraordinary breakthrough, an early warning system that’s literally at our fingertips. In a natural disaster, one extra second can save a life, and this app can provide that. I’m proud to support it, and I urge every Angeleno to download and use it.”

The ShakeAlert system has been operating under a limited pilot program in recent months, accessible only to about 40 public agencies and other partners in the state, officials said. The launch of the ShakeAlertLA app represents the first time members of the general public can make use of the system.

ShakeAlert is intended to ultimately communicate not only with smartphones, but other forms of media and other electronic devices, as well, according to the designers.

“Part of the point of this thing is to give people a heads up,” Heaton explained. “The other part of this system is to actually get information into other machines, like the control systems for railroads or… elevators.”

Linking other machines directly to the system could help significantly reduce the number of fires that break out in the wake of large earthquakes, he added.

Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek said he believes those automated applications of the ShakeAlert system could be of the greatest benefit.

“As far as I’m concerned, the real value of these, of this early warning system is for the auto automatic systems,” he said. The few seconds of advanced warning, coupled with automated safeguards, could help allow commuter trains a few moments to slow down before the shaking begins, for example, he said.

City officials have already begun discussing integrating the emerging technology into the city’s public safety planning, Tornek said. “We’re on board here.”

ShakeAlert is designed to provide early users with a few seconds of notice of earthquakes, depending on how far away they are from the epicenter, according to de Groot.

“There’s, there’s a physical limitation for the system that if you’re right on top of the earthquake, you’ll get an alert, but it will arrive late because the system itself doesn’t have time to actually detect the earthquake and get the message out to you. And that’s just a physical limitation.”

Thinking back on the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake in 1994, the system would likely not be able to give Pasadenans early warning, de Groot said. “It was much too close.”

The farther away the epicenter, the longer the notice the system can provide, he said.

De Groot said the technology remains under development, with refinements and improvements to come.

“The city of L.A. is really taking a very bold step in making this happen,” he said. “The city of L.A. is committed to doing a lot more testing, so I think there’s going to be many more improvements in not only the delivery of the alerts to actual people, but also the development of all of those resources that go with training people to do what’s appropriate.”

Among the details to be worked out include what sound users will hear on their mobile devices to alert them of a pending earthquake.

“Something that’s still being worked on is developing a sound that would provide that cognitive shortcut, where you don’t even have to pull your phone out of your pocket. You just hear it and you know what to do.”

“There’s a whole segment of the work that we’re doing on the social science dimension,” he said. “We’re looking for that unique sound that won’t get used for anything else other than for earthquake early warning.”

Another significant challenge to contend with is the issue of sending out thousands and thousands of mobile messages at once, in a timely manner, de Groot said.

Los Angeles contracted with AT&T to design the ShakeAlertLA app, in part, due to the company’s expertise in telecommunications.

The ShakeAlert system was developed by the USGS, Caltech, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Washington and University of Oregon in partnership with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.