Earthquake warning system could alert public before shocks are felt

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
A crack develops in the wall of UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium just south of Concourse D-FF.

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With a 10-second warning before an earthquake hits, transportation systems could slow down, heavy machinery could be halted and medical operations could be paused — preventive measures that could potentially save lives.

An early-warning system developed by UC Berkeley researchers accurately detected the magnitude 6 earthquake that shook Napa on Sunday morning 10 seconds before it struck, spurring hopes for damage control and injury prevention in future emergencies.

ShakeAlert issues an alert by detecting P-wave energy, the first to radiate from an earthquake. The system then uses the information to estimate the earthquake’s magnitude and location, along with a countdown to the quake.

Despite the alert system’s utility, however, lack of funding has prevented ShakeAlert from becoming accessible to the public and some organizations that could benefit from the system. ShakeAlert currently has 150 subscribers, including BART and UCPD.

ShakeAlert would require an $80 million investment to become available to the public in California, according to Richard Allen, the director of the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and a campus professor of earth and planetary science.

Allen’s lab developed the system along with the California Institute of Technology, the University of Washington, the U.S. Geological Survey and other partners.

“Systems like this one have saved lives,” Allen said. “This is critical in earthquake country.”

Systems such as BART aim to use the program’s notification period to reduce injuries in case of an earthquake.

With a 10-second warning, a BART train traveling at 30 miles per hour would be able to stop, and a train traveling at 70 miles per hour would be able to slow down to 40 miles per hour, which would play a huge role in preventing train derailment, said John McPartland, a BART director, at a press conference Monday.

The warning time a ShakeAlert user receives can range from fractions of a second to about a minute, depending on the user’s distance from the epicenter of the earthquake.

“This isn’t a panacea, but it can still help others,” Allen said.

Developers hope that with proper funding, ShakeAlert can be used to broadcast mass warnings to smartphones and other personal devices, Allen said. UCPD was the first police department to subscribe to the alerts, and Allen said some campus organizations have shown interest in the system.

UC Berkeley currently uses the alert service “WarnMe” as its mass-notification system during campuswide emergencies. The UC Berkeley Office of Emergency Management has also created an app that provides information about safety services and tips, according to an email that Chancellor Nicholas Dirks addressed to the campus Monday.

The city of Berkeley offers its own emergency notification system for anyone who lives or works in Berkeley and uses a cell phone, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

Aside from the notification system, the city also offers community emergency-response training classes and emergency disaster-equipment kits for neighborhoods or community groups, among other disaster-preparedness programs. Although the city and campus have both implemented notification apps, the city will continue to use a variety of communication systems to distribute emergency information, including radio, television and the city’s website.

“We’re always trying to make Berkeley a more resilient city,” Chakko said. “We already have a lot of measures in place, but there will be more to come.”

Contact Chloee Weiner at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_chloeew .