Earthquake alert system on shaky ground with developers

LOS ANGELES — Tom Heaton was sitting in his kitchen in Pasadena on Monday morning when an alert went off on his laptop warning him that an earthquake had struck about 40 miles away in Encino.

Seconds later, he felt the shaking.

“It was fantastic,” said Heaton, director of the California Institute of Technology’s Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory. “It was bam-bam, then it shook. It was probably about three seconds” between the alert and the shaking.

Within a few years, all Californians could have access to those kinds of warnings, a crucial few seconds that could give emergency officials and residents time to brace for a major temblor.

But as work on the statewide early warning system kicks into high gear, government scientists and private companies are jockeying over how the system should operate.

Among the questions still to be decided: whether it will be a strictly free system or whether a more advanced, paid system for governments and other institutions will be incorporated.

Some private companies already sell earthquake alerts to city governments, businesses, fire departments and schools.

By far, the most prominent in California is Seismic Warning Systems Inc. in Scotts Valley. The company has both government and private clients, particularly across southwestern California, where the San Andreas fault and other seismic dangers loom large.

In endorsing the statewide warning system last year, the state Legislature mandated that it be a public-private partnership, creating some unease between entrepreneurs and scientists, who have toiled on a public warning system.

The legislation states that no state general fund money can be used to cover the estimated $80 million it will take to complete the system. That leaves the Office of Emergency Services to look for other sources — both public and private — to cover those costs before January 2016.

Some scientists saw that mandate as a setback for the project, which still requires installation of many more ground sensors around the state and additional money to operate the network.

Without state money, the public and private sectors are going to have to work together to cover those costs. Public scientists say the lack of state money is likely to slow the process.

Heaton, who for years has been part of a team of scientists on a U.S. Geological Survey project to create the statewide network, admits the relationship between the two sides has been chilly at times.

“It’s hard enough if we’re all pulling together,” Heaton said. “I totally agree, we need private enterprise, but they don’t explicitly state it. They seem to be saying, ‘Public sector, just get out of the way.’ They seem to be somewhat threatened by the idea there will be a public system.”

Both the public and private warning systems work when sensors in the ground detect the first signs of earth movement, known as P waves, that travel at the speed of sound. The more damaging shaking, called the S wave, lags behind at a slower speed. The greater the distance from the epicenter, the more time population centers have to prepare. A quake at the center of the city could provide little to no warning.

Early warning systems already are used in Japan and Mexico.

Seismic Warning Systems officials argued that they could partner with the state to build a better network that is cheaper to operate. They say they use two sensors at a fault location to avoid false alarms.

“Not only for less money, but faster, more reliable,” said George Dickson III, chairman and chief executive of the company.

A few hours after Monday’s quake in Encino, the company shared an email stating that its technology might have been able to give more of a warning than the USGS alert Heaton received. But because the company doesn’t have instrumentation in L.A., the claim was only an estimate based on how its technology works elsewhere.

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