House Committee Backs Funds for Earthquake Warning System

The appropriations bill with the funds is expected to be approved Tuesday

An earthquake early warning system for the West Coast received a boost Tuesday with the approval of federal funding that will be included in an Interior and Environment Appropriations bill.

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to include $5 million in the bill. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) pushed for the earmark, which is the first time Congress has specifically committed funds to the Early Earthquake Warning System. 

"Every few months, we're reminded about our vulnerability with tremors, earthquakes and aftershocks rattling our homes and businesses," Schiff said in a statement. "It's absolutely critical that the U.S., and the West Coast in particular, invest in an early warning system so that lives can be saved and infrastructure can be protected."

The allocation is expected to go toward expanding the system by purchasing and installing additional sensors and hiring new staff members.

Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, said construction of the system along the West Coast would take around $38 million. The annual operational costs of the program would be roughly $16 million.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates the average annual cost of earthquake damage in the U.S. is $4.4 billion.

Officials say the early warning system would be able to provide a few seconds to a minute of warning, depending on the person's distance from the epicenter of the earthquake.

"Even a few seconds of warning before the next 'big one' will allow people to seek cover, automatically slow or stop trains, pause surgeries and more," Schiff said in a statement.

The warning could come from many different sources including radio, television or smartphone applications.

Early Earthquake Warning Systems have been implemented in several other countries including Japan, where it was credited for saving lives during the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

"Other countries around the world have Early Earthquake Warning Systems, so the U.S. is actually behind in this regard," Allen said. "It's really critical we implement this before the next big earthquake occurs."

A limited system called the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN), developed by Caltech, UC Berkeley and the United State Geological Survey (USGS), has been piloted in Southern California.

While the CISN can't function independently as a sufficient early warning system, officials with the program say it can provide a cost-efficient framework on which to build a larger program.

Allen said additional seismic stations need to be added to the system before it can be made available to the public.

If all necessary funding is approved, officials say implementation of the system would take around two years.

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