Congress members ask Obama to fund earthquake early warning system

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Members of Congress sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday asking for federal funding for an earthquake early warning system that was created in tandem with a campus laboratory.

Thirty-six House Democrats — led by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Washington — asked Obama for $16.1 million to support the West Coast Earthquake Early Warning System.

Even with just seconds of warning before shaking begins, automated steps can be taken to prevent casualties and mitigate destruction,” Schiff and Kilmer said in the letter.

The U.S. Geological Survey collaborated with various universities and research institutions — including the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and the California Office of Emergency Services — to develop the earthquake early warning system, which is meant to give notice before tremors occur.

According to Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer at the BSL, the lab has reached out to lawmakers on Capitol Hill over the years to educate them about the system and provide factual information about what the program can accomplish.

The system uses seismometers — devices that measure the motion of the ground — implemented throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. It uses the information from these instruments to detect where tremors will strike and relays this knowledge to minimize the damage from earthquakes.

The USGS has been implementing the earthquake early warning system in the United States since 2006, and other nations have already developed or are working on developing a similar program.

Strauss said the BSL hopes to use the funding to upgrade and maintain the warning system.

Currently, the earthquake early warning system is available to only a few organizations, one of which is BART, in the form of a demonstration system called ShakeAlert.

According to BART media relations manager Jim Allison, ShakeAlert notifies and automatically brakes trains in the case of an earthquake.

BART partnered with ShakeAlert under the guidance of John McPartland, director of BART’s District 5, who is a former professional firefighter from Oakland Fire Department and “very passionate about public safety and earthquakes,” Allison said.

In 2014, ShakeAlert detected the magnitude-6 Napa, California, earthquake 10 seconds before it occurred.

ShakeAlert, however, is a “test system” only available for emergency management groups, according to Strauss. With the Democrats’ proposal for more funding for the earthquake early warning system, the BSL hopes to make it accessible to the public.

We can only do a full public release once we have a quality, fully funded product with all of the pieces together,” Strauss said. “You can’t really give a test system out to the public.”

Strauss explained that they hope to expand the system to a phone application and that this program is in its preliminary test phase.

Contact Ericka Shin at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ericka_shin