Washington falling behind on earthquake early-warning system

An earthquake early-warning system is under development on the West Coast, but it could be at least another two years before public alerts begin in Washington.

ShakeAlert is designed to give people anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes of warning before the ground starts shaking, by detecting the initial earthquake waves that travel before the more destructive waves.

The idea is to give enough time for people to take cover.

ShakeAlert relies on a network of sensors, but a report by the U.S. Geological Survey said of the 560 seismic stations needed in the Northwest, 277 are unfunded.

California has put in $25 million in state money to supplement federal funding, but Washington has made no specific contributions for earthquake early warning.

"We're behind, let's face it," said University of Washington seismologist Bill Steele, of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. "We have to double our seismic network over the next couple of years."

California makes it a priority

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has championed earthquake early warning, declaring in his State of the City address in 2017 that "by the end of 2018 we will deploy an earthquake early-warning system to every corner of this city."

LA's early-warning test will begin with tens of thousands of municipal employees getting alerts on their work phones, using an app developed by AT&T.

As recently as last month, Garcetti's office talked about public notifications by the end of the year.

Washington lags behind

In Washington, no one is making promises like that.

KIRO 7 asked Maximilian Dixon, who manages earthquake programs for the Washington Emergency Management Division, when public warnings might be launched here.

"I would like to shoot for the end of 2020, that would be fantastic, sooner of course," Dixon said. "It would be great if we could do it tomorrow. But I really can't give you a firm date, I just can't."

Technical hurdles

One of the problems with public alerts is delivering messages quickly to cellphones.

"Right now we don't have any way to get the alert out to the public or in a real massive way to a lot of users," Dixon said. "We're talking millions of users at once within seconds, because if this alert does not go out within seconds it's not going to work."

That FEMA Presidential Alert that came to phones last month was an example of the challenge.

State officials say some people never got the alert at all, or received it 15 to 20 seconds late.

Phone companies are working to close that latency gap, and the municipal test in Los Angeles is expected to help test the program.

An app called QuakeAlert, developed by the private company Early Warning Labs, expects to expand its pilot project to 100,000 users within 90 days.

Washington funding

Washington's Emergency Management Division plans to ask for $250,000 annually to fund public education programs, so people know what to do when they get an earthquake warning.

Emergency responders consider this a key step to help people make good decisions in a chaotic moment.

Oregon has allocated about $1 million for the sensor system, but Washington has not allocated anything specifically for early warning beyond basic funding for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

The UW's Bill Steele said seismologists have not asked for additional network funding, but have briefed interested legislators, including Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.

"It has not captured the attention in a robust way of the Legislature in the way that it should," Frockt said. Unlike other funding priorities, Frockt said "you don't have interest groups pushing."

Gov. Jay Inslee's office sent KIRO 7 a statement saying, "With the federal government already committed to paying for more earthquake early warning sensors and system infrastructure, the governor is considering proposals to prioritize limited state funds for educating our communities about this innovative new system and how to respond to it."

The cost of early warning

The Trump administration proposed cutting funding for earthquake early warning, but Congress last spring allocated nearly $23 million.

This year, the USGS updated its cost estimate for the program, which shows more money is needed.

Officials now estimate completing the computing infrastructure and sensor networks will cost $39.4 million.

Operating the system is now estimated to cost $28.6 million per year.

Building the infrastructure for highly reliable data telemetry is expected to cost another $20.5 million, although federal officials say that cost could be reduced if bandwidth is provided on existing systems.

Operating an upgraded data telemetry system would add up to $9.8 million per year.

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