Tom Heaton thought it was crazy when, back in the 1970s, he first heard about the concept of an earthquake early warning system.
Japan’s high-speed rail system already was using the technology to slow down trains before shaking from a distant earthquake hit. But the more the young Caltech scientist did his calculations, the more he dreamed of bringing the system to California.
By 1985, he proposed what still was considered radical, a “seismic computerized alert network” for the state. Over the next decade, major earthquakes in Northern California and the San Fernando Valley added urgency to the effort.
On Thursday, Heaton was at Los Angeles City Hall to watch a demonstration of the warning system that culminated his life’s work — sirens and audible announcements aimed to air before the shaking arrives, declaring, “Earthquake! Earthquake! Drop. Cover. Hold on. Protect yourself now!”
Within months, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, some residents could begin to have access to a network on their smartphones that would offer crucial seconds of warning before shaking from a major quake strikes.
“It’s been a long time coming, for me personally,” said Heaton, who is approaching retirement. “I mean, I got excited about this in 1979. And that was a long time ago.”
The rollout of the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake early warning system is a crowning achievement for California — all the more remarkable as it was built during a period without a catastrophic temblor striking to spur terrified lawmakers into action.
Just a year ago, there was a proposal by the Trump administration to end federal funding for the network. But an unlikely bipartisan coalition in Congress rallied to save it.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) was an early champion of the warning system. And Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), chairman of an influential House subcommittee, in the last year had become an open fan, Heaton said. In March, the federal budget added $22.9 million for the project, more than doubling the amount Washington had allocated the previous year.
“And that was really critical to putting today together,” Heaton said. “The fact that Calvert and Schiff were working with each other on this — I mean, it’s like a miracle.… And kudos to them, really.
“It’s a good thing for California.”
The system has become politically popular among state lawmakers as well.
Where officials once banned the use of state general fund money for the system, now Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators have earmarked $25 million to build out the remaining sensors needed.
And in a shift, the Trump administration has moved to help get the system operational.
This month, Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Department of the Interior, issued an order to expedite the approval process for the installation of seismic sensors on federal land, a process that has been bogged down by red tape. The agency dispatched a deputy assistant secretary to attend the ShakeAlert demonstration Thursday.
“Science helps us protect people,” the official, Austin Ewell, said. “The goal is to make sure a disaster does not become a catastrophe.”
In the coming months, an app called ShakeAlertLA — developed by AT&T — will be made available for city employees to begin testing on their cellphones, Garcetti said. If the system holds up as thousands of people start using the system, ShakeAlertLA will be rolled out to the public, perhaps as soon as the end of the year.
“By advancing earthquake early warning technology, we are making Los Angeles stronger, making Angelenos safer,” the mayor said. “And it’ll help save lives, most important, by giving people those precious seconds to stop elevators, to pull to the side of the road, to drop, cover and hold on.
“All that will not happen the first day we launch,” Garcetti said. “But together, with the private sector, we will build the software and the hardware that will allow us to be able to anticipate and react to an earthquake before we even feel it here.”
Santa Monica-based Early Warning Labs also is seeking permission from the USGS to begin distributing its warning app on a testing basis to as many as 100,000 people.
Because earthquake shaking waves move slower than modern communications, users farther from the epicenter might get seconds, or perhaps tens of seconds, of warning before the shaking hits them.
In 2014, Pasadena received six seconds of warning from the prototype system when a magnitude 5.1 earthquake hit La Habra. Later that year, Berkeley was given a five-second warning, and San Francisco eight seconds, before shaking arrived from a magnitude 6 temblor in Napa.
Earthquake early warnings already are a reality for many agencies, with transit networks, hospitals and police stations tied into the system. There’s even one system designed to automatically open locked gates at a condominium garage before shaking arrives, so power outages don’t trap motorists inside.
Getting elevators to stop on the closest floor and open the doors before the shaking cuts out power is also a priority. An estimated 22,000 people in the Bay Area could be trapped in 4,500 stalled elevators in a hypothetical magnitude 7 earthquake on the Hayward fault, said Keith Porter, research professor of structural engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Implementing the system at full capacity won’t come immediately. The current text messaging system is too slow; a recent National Wireless Emergency Alert System test showed that the average delay in users receiving a text message was about 22 seconds.
Years could pass before cellphone systems are fast enough to carry early warnings, but improvements should come as fifth-generation 5G cell network technology is rolled out.
Push alerts through cellphone applications have the promise to be much faster in the short run. They will be put to test in the coming months as the apps are more widely distributed.
“A lot of work remains to realize the full life-saving potential of the earthquake early warning system, but it’s clear we are making tremendous progress,” Calvert said in a statement. “Significant investments are still needed to complete the system, but as we see applications come to fruition, I’m hopeful we can attract additional resources and partners in this important endeavor.”