Earthquake early warning could start becoming available to the public in California as soon as two years, according to system coordinator Doug Given.
But there's a big prerequisite first, Given said: "full funding."
It took a significant step forward over the weekend when Congress, for the first time, allocated federal funds for the system, $5 million.
"This really is pivotal," Given said.
Nevertheless, the projected operating budget is more than three times that, $16 million, plus upgrading the system will require capital expenditures on the order of $30 million or more.
"The timeline is almost entirely dependent on further funding," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, who worked with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein for the funding to be included in the omnibus spending bill approved by the Senate Sunday night.
Schiff and Given made the announcement during a briefing Monday at the Caltech Seismology laboratory.
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Given is the with US Geological survey, which is working with Caltech and two other universities, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington in Seattle, to develop an early warning system for the three West Coast states, including Oregon.
A demonstration project dubbed "ShakeAlert" has been in testing for three years, with notifications of quake magnitude and epicenter being sent within seconds, but only to a limited audience of academics, and certain government agencies and private companies participating in the beta phase of development.
Moving beyond beta will require expanding the network of seismic sensors, improving some of them, and upgrading the software that controls the system.
"We need to complete the system and build it out," Given said.
The five million dollars allocated by Congress is intended as "seed" money, said Schiff, and is a one-time only commitment.
"Essentially, the state needs to step up," he said.
The California Office of Emergency Services, which reports to the Governor, is exploring additional funding options, Given said.
California would account for two-thirds of the annual expenditures for operating the system, about $12 million, with Oregon and Washington accounting for the remaining $4 million, Given said.
Last year, California's legislature passed a bill calling for an early warning system, but not providing funding to build it.
The bill was authored by then Senator Alex Padilla, who has since been elected Secretary of State, but yet to take office.
The newly-elected state senator from the San Fernando Valley, Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said he believes the state should provide some early warning funding, and that the federal commitment will serve as incentive.
"I think this is an opportunity and I think there are creative ways to come up with money to help for this," said Hertzberg.
When the funding does become available, the rollout will be "incremental," Given said.
Automated response systems would be designed to do such things as open firehouse doors, or shut down
trains and subway cars in advance of the shaking.
In the Bay Area, such capability is already built into the BART system, which was notified of the early morning Napa Quake last August and would have stopped its cars, had the system been operating at that hour.
Apps to notify the general public, such as by text messages, would likely come last, Given said, following a robust public education program focused on what the alert messages mean and how to respond.