Officials to Launch Earthquake Alert System Wednesday in Pasadena

Published : Wednesday, October 17, 2018 | 5:35 AM

Caltech will be the epicenter of a big shake-up in the world of seismology Wednesday as scientists, Congressional leaders and other officials join together to announce the rollout of an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast.

ShakeAlert has been in development for several years and is now ready to begin maturing for public use, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

It’s designed to detect the earliest possible rumblings of earthquakes and send out alerts to give the public at least some advanced warning, if only a few seconds. But sometimes, that’s enough to mean the difference between life and death.

“Even with just a few seconds of warning, trains can be slowed or stopped, a surgery can be paused, and a person can brace themselves or quickly take shelter,” according a statement issued by the United States House of Representatives on behalf of Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena.

The system showed its promise when a 4.4-magnitude earthquake rattled La Verne in late-August.

It was able to give nearly 5 seconds of warning for areas 20 miles away, officials said. Los Angeles, which was 28 miles from the epicenter, received the alert 8.3 seconds before the tremors reached the city.

Schiff and Chu, who have championed the project and worked to secure tens of millions of dollars in funding for it, are scheduled to gather with USGS seismologists, Caltech scientists and California Office of Emergency Services officials to announce the beginning of the system’s public debut in Southern California.

“Since 2014, Rep. Schiff and his colleagues in Congress have been working to provide the sustained funding needed to build out ShakeAlert and get it up and running,” the statement said. “They have secured over $45 million for the system so far, with more expected this year.”

Authorities said the system has been in “beta testing” for the past few years to make sure it’s accurate and reliable.

More than half of the 400 needed detection stations are operational, according to the USGS.

“Businesses, schools and local governments can now work with ShakeAlert partners to distribute the alerts for members of their organizations. Fifty pilot projects are now up and running for public transportation systems, schools, hospitals, utilities, and more,” the statement said. “ShakeAlert is becoming available to the general public, and soon individuals will be able to receive alerts through their phones, a system that California will begin testing this winter.”

ShakeAlert 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.

Similar systems are already up and running in other countries.

But despite the great potential for damaging and deadly earthquakes, California has been relatively lucky in recent years, according to seismologist Lucy Jones, a Caltech research associate and chief scientist and founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society.

“I’ll be really cynical and say, because we haven’t killed enough people in an earthquake yet,” she said last year.

The USGS estimates ShakeAlert will cost $39.4 million to build once completed, as well as $28.6 million annually to operate.