The classroom of 4-year-olds was observing a morning rest period. The 20 or so children napped, assembled puzzles at tables or played in a miniature kitchen.
Suddenly, a high-pitched tone pierced through the day-care center. Children looked up and then ducked beneath their desks as they had been drilled. Their teacher called out instructions, then moved to a doorway.
Three seconds later, the June 12 earthquake centered beneath Montebello rumbled through the Culver City Tiny Tots preschool. While the floor shook and windows rattled in the 4.5-magnitude temblor, children crouched under desks, hands folded over their necks. At the same time, another class on the playground had moved away from the building, while a third group ducked below tables in another part of the school.
Met With Skepticism
The alarm worked again half an hour later for the 4.3 aftershock.
The school's 65 children, ages 2 to 6, had reacted to a new, low-cost earthquake warning device donated by one student's father.
David Elliot, 38, and two friends are the creators of California Quake-Awake, a $30-device shaped like a white triangular smoke alarm said to provide up to 30 seconds' warning of approaching temblors.
Although the earthquakes were relatively minor, Elliot and fellow entrepreneurs Ken Caillat and David Elston believe their product passed a crucial test.
Since it began two years ago as an idea in a Malibu guest house, the device manufactured by California Quake-Awake Inc. has frequently encountered skeptics. But, since production began last December, the Century City company has seen sales slowly climb and has distributed 10,000 Quake-Awake alarms to 200 stores in California and Utah.
Chain retailers, including Fedco, Home Club and National Lumber, have stocked alarms, and the entrepreneurs are directing marketing efforts at other earthquake-leery regions worldwide, including Japan, Mexico, Taiwan and eastern Europe.
State earthquake experts say the alarm's technology is sound.
"The principle behind these devices is valid," said Wilfred D. Iwan, Caltech professor of engineering and applied sciences and former chairman of the California Seismic Safety Commission. Iwan, like all state and academic officials contacted, does not endorse commercial products.
According to Iwan and the product's makers, the alarm works by sensing seismic "waves" emitted by earthquakes. There are two kinds of waves: P-waves--"pressure" or "primary" waves, and S-waves--"secondary" or "shear" waves. Seismic waves are analogous to sound waves but travel through the earth rather than the air.
P-waves travel faster than S-waves and yield about one-fifth of a second warning for each mile away from the epicenter.
A person on top of a quake's epicenter would receive almost no warning. But if a quake occurred, say, on the San Andreas Fault, residents of Culver City 45 miles away could expect up to nine seconds of notice.
Slept Through Aftershock
Elliot, formerly a traveling merchandiser of promotional theater goods, saw the need for an earthquake alarm when he slept through the 5.4-magnitude aftershock of the October, 1987, Whittier quake. Staying in a guest room overlooking a cliff at Caillat's Malibu home, the Culver City resident and father of two nervously questioned Caillat, 42, about the prospects for a homemade alarm.
He discovered his friend had already tackled the problem: Caillat had taken a cue from a dining room chandelier and hung a wrench next to a wall as a sort of detector.
Within a day of the Whittier aftershock, the pair had built an electrical prototype of the pendulum using the miniature "tilt" component in one of Caillat's pinball machines. Calling himself a tinkerer and an inventor, Caillat has designed items such as a talking doorbell and a record production studio. In 1977, he won a Grammy Award for producing the rock album "Rumours" for Fleetwood Mac.
By December, 1988, the pair had researched the P-wave, developed a prototype, raised $40,000 from family investors and brought aboard Elston, 38, a Connecticut real estate developer who moved to California in 1983. The three began working out of Elston's Rancho Park apartment.
By last month, they were considering marketing strategies. Caillat and Elliot watched as a mellow voice from the television set asked, "Are you prepared for a major earthquake?"
Moments later, the answer: "With California Quake-Awake, you are."
Scrutinizing a two-minute video marketing clip, the pair review their latest promotion. Elston is in New York City meeting potential investors.
Although the two men smile sheepishly at the video--which ends as a heavy picture frame drops onto a just-vacated infant's crib during a temblor--they are serious about taking advantage of a quake-wary Southern California market and about their device's potential for saving lives.
Caillat imagines Quake-Awake's possibilities: Alarms in schools, hospitals and factories. Shop awnings that spring open, sheltering pedestrians from falling glass of skyscrapers. Window blinds that automatically shut in the home. Lathes and machinery shutting down seconds before quakes strike, and computer-linked water and gas lines shutting off in residences and businesses.
After years of not taking commercial concerns seriously, Iwan said, California authorities and the National Research Council have convened committees to explore the usefulness of "real-time earthquake monitoring" and other quake safety issues. The scientist, a member of the national panel, says there is growing recognition of possibilities for immediate quake detection, especially in areas of government emergency response.
Private application in homes and businesses, however, "really is a marketing question," Iwan said.
The circumstances for marketing the product look ideal--there is only one competitor in the earthquake alarm field, and its products cost thousands of dollars because it uses very sensitive technology. But the aspiring manufacturers also know that at least five other companies have tried without success to market earthquake detection devices in the United States.
Technological advances, computer communication possibilities and their own marketing success have convinced the three that their wall-mounted device offers better applications and reliability at lower cost than the earlier devices.
Elliot says he and his partners have come a long way from their first idea for a commercial product: a red and gold plastic box and pendulum set--"basically a Mickey Mouse-looking thing," he said--that was rejected by the first design agency they consulted.
And although they do not plan to market Quake-Awake in areas unaccustomed to earthquakes--such as New York, Elston said--they are confident they can sell their product to anyone willing to listen.
"The first reaction is always a chuckle at first," Elliot said. "But once we explain what it does, that's when people go, 'Ah, I want one of those.' "