It’s still impossible to predict when an earthquake will hit, but scientists hope to develop the next best thing – an early warning system that lets people know within seconds of the first rumble.
The idea, says state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who on Monday introduced a bill to develop and adopt the system statewide, is to send out alerts via computers and smartphones at the first sign of a significant shaker. Emergency alarms would also go off.
"I think a lot of people have a stake in the early-warning system, whether it is energy utilities that need to power down plants, nuclear and otherwise, to minimize the risk of damage," Padilla said.
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It wouldn’t allow people to really know in advance when a quake will hit – that’s still not possible, experts say. But the system might give people an extra 30 to 60 seconds to get to safety – and that might be enough to save lives.
What do seconds mean?
"You can move the elevator to the nearest floor, ring an alarm in the operating room or the dentist's office to pull the drill out of your mouth," said Dr. Lucy Jones, with the U.S. Geological Survey.
A total of 1,000 seismic stations would be needed for the system to work, as well as having enough employees to monitor it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The warning, which could also come in a form similar to "Amber Alerts" on freeway road signs, would also describe the expected intensity of the earthquakes in the area.
The system would cost about $80 million, and funding has been stalled by budget cuts at the state and federal level. It has not yet been in this legislation.
"I think an $80 million investment compared to the billions of dollars in damages and cost of recovery after every major earthquake is a smart investment," Padilla said.
He added that an investment could even come from private groups with vested interests.
"Telecommunications companies, who may have a loss of service, want to keep that to a minimum, not days upon days as you saw with Hurricane Sandy," he said.
The sentor said he expects a defined funding source by late summer. If the money comes through, experts say it will take one to two years to get the 1,000 seismic stations up and ready to make public announcements via the California Integrated Seismic Network.