Private Sector Takes Role in Advancing Quake Early Warning

California's fledgling earthquake early warning system, developed largely by government and academics, will require the innovation and investment of for-profit businesses to make the leap to practical service, according to experts in the field.

"It's going to be the private sector that helps us innovate new ideas and delivery mechanisms," said Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer for the Berkeley Seismology Laboratory, which hosted the Third International Conference on Earthquake Early Warning that concluded Friday.
The University of California at Berkeley and Pasadena's California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have worked with the U.S. Geological Survey and the state Office of Emergency Services in establishing the ShakeAlert system, a network of seismic sensor and computer programming to identify quakes and their epicenters within moments of onset, and then calculate when the shaking will reach other areas.
So-called beta testing began in 2012, and the system's ability to provide advance warning has been demonstrated in numerous quakes. But apart from researchers and a limited number of public and private entities, few others have been getting the warnings.
"We have to take it from demonstration to actual operating system," said Tom Heaton, Director of Caltech's Earthquake Engineering Reserch Laboratory. Heaton has contributed to ShakeAlert development and served as one of the conference's organizers.
The quake data is gathered by the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN), which needs further upgrading before "going live," Heaton said. But also needed are applications that will take the warning signal and develop delivery systems and automated responses, such as opening the overhead doors of firehouses and stopping elevators.
"There's no way the scientists can make all the actions happen. That's going to be in the private sector--people who are writing apps, people who are writing various mechanisms to control things--that's going to be done by companies," said Heaton.
CISN is overseen by the US Geological Survey. "It's our mission," said Doug Given, the USGS Early Warning Coordinator. "But we as the government cannot get that message into everyone's home. So we'll depend on every available means to spread the word...and that's going to take a broad
cooperation among all the parners, including private companies," Given said.
Clearly, some entities are willing to pay for and develop their own early warning applications.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) arguably is at the vanguard, with a progam that responds to the warning by automatically slowing its trains.
"In 10 seconds, I can take a train, and reduce that from 30 miles an hour and take it to a complete stop, or take a 70 mile an hour and reduce it down to 40 miles an hour. That is huge. That is our goal," said John McPartland, a BART director.
BART reported it had a 15-second advance warning of the shaking from the August 24 Napa quake, and could have slowed trains had the quake not occurred during early Sunday morning
hours when there were no trains operating.
Much of the beta testing at private companies has been low-profile, as ShakeAlert's developers do not want the public to get the impression it's ready to go.
But the current and planned testing was a frequent topic of discussion among attendees at the
Berkeley conference, where academics and researchers mingled with first responders, public utilities officials, and entrepreneurs launching startups to provide early warning apps.
One such company is Early Warning Labs, founded in Santa Monica by serial entrepreneur Josh Bashioum, invited to speak on the industry use panel.
Bashioum disclosed that some of his company's apps will be beta tested at a major Los Angeles entertainment studio, a facility large enough to have its own fire station. One app will open the station doors.  Bashioum did not disclose the identity of the studio, but other sources confirm it is Universal Studios (disclosure: NBC Universal is the parent company of NBCLA, which has offices on the Universal lot).
"What we're doing is we're taking the technology developed by some of these educational institutions and putting it in the cloud.  And making it a very low cost way to deliver these alerts to companies and individuals," Bashioum said.
Bashioum envisions anticipated revenue from industrial and business clients subsidizing a smart phone app for individuals.
Another company, Seismic Warning Systems, has been building not only early warning apps, but also its own sensors, independent of the data from CISN.
A characteristic of quake energy waves enables some brief amount of early warning  from a sensor installed at the very location to be warned.  The primary wave of energy from a quake, or P-wave, arrives first, before the secondary waves, or S-waves, that carry more of the energy that can be damaging.  That difference between the arrival of the P and the S waves can be enough to activate automates responses--such as opening firehouse doors--before the jolt of the S waves could, for example, knock the doors off their tracks and makes them inoperable.
But in the case of powerful quakes at a significant distance from the area to be warned, much longer lead time is possible with a network of  multiple sensors canvassing the state.  The classic example is the scenario for the long anticipated "Big One" on the San Andreas Fault.  Under the scenario, the quake would occur on a stretch of the fault near the Salton Sea south of Palm Springs, some 100 miles from Los Angeles.
The CISN network would detect the quake, calculate its strength, and within seconds send out warnings that would reach Los Angeles at virtually the speed of light.  Meantime, the quake waves
would be rumbling through the earth at roughly the speed of sound and take more than a minute to reach an already-alerted Los Angeles.
It's analagous to the time lag after you see lightning before you hear the thunder, a gap that
grows ever bigger the farther away you are from the lightning (or earthquake).
This time period affords the opportunity for apps to send out text messages or even voice calls to cellular phones.
One Bay Area tech company, Regroup, has been negotiating with the city of San Francisco to set up a system that would text early warning messages to all city employees, and with further development, to any citizen who signs up for the alerts. 
But the lynchpin remains upgrading CISN to industrial strength, and that will require additional funding estimated to be on the order of $80 million.
"My guess is decisions need to be made in the next six months or so," Heaton said. "And those decisions are going to determine when we go live."
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