California quake alert system could be operating by 2018

California Gov. Jerry Brown will seek state funds to help establish a system that issues alerts that an earthquake is occurring — with an eye on rolling out a limited system by 2018, a newspaper reported Monday.

The governor will ask the Legislature to allocate $10 million toward the system being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and university researchers.

The decision to include the plan in his revised state budget is a reversal for Brown. He has supported creation of the system but previously argued that the money should come from private and federal sources.

Seismic early warning systems are designed to detect the first shock waves from a large jolt, calculate the strength and alert people before the slower but damaging waves spread. Ultimately, scientists plan to develop apps for mobile phones and computers that would give the public the early alerts.

Scientists say the early warning system would be beneficial.

"A couple of extra seconds to have things put in place to help you, so slowing down trains, opening firehouse bay doors, stopping elevators at the nearest floor," says Jennifer Strauss with Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

The systems can't predict quakes and are most useful during big events where it would be meaningful to warn people far away to expect strong shaking, scientists have said.

The network for California and the rest of the West Coast has been repeatedly delayed because of a lack of funding. Three years ago, Brown signed a law that prevented state funds from being used to pay for the earthquake alert system.  At that time, the state was facing severe financial shortfalls. That law will expire next month.  

"The infusion of state funding will allow us to surge forward," said Doug Given, earthquake early warning coordinator for the USGS.

Currently, Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, USGS and other agencies are working on beta testing of the warning system. They said the next step will be to implement the testing system.

Scientists say the $10 million from the state will help with $7 million going towards hardware, such as paying for GPS and facilities. The remaining $3 million would cover education and training.

"It doesn't change our timeline, but it certainly changes the outlook just a little bit. Because we're looking for sustained funding," Strauss said.

State lawmakers have until June 15 to approve the governor's budget and Brown would have until June 30 to sign the new budget.  

California trails Japan, Mexico and other earthquake-prone areas in developing a public alert system. A limited rollout in two years would mean that places such as classrooms, offices, shopping malls, amusement parks and police and fire stations could have ready access to alerts that would give quick notice that an earthquake is occurring before strong shaking begins in a major quake.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, who has championed federal funding of the warning system, praised Brown's decision. He and others hoped it would encourage Oregon and Washington state to follow and also for private industry to contribute.

The funding would expand a limited program developed by the California Institute of Technology; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Washington in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey.