Governor signs bill to expand earthquake early warning system

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California will get a better, more reliable earthquake monitoring system in the coming years – one that could give its residents a warning of up to one minute in the event of a large temblor along the San Andreas fault.

Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill Thursday to help kick-start that project. The bill, to become law at the start of 2017, establishes an advisory board and a framework for updating the monitoring sensors of its Shake Alert system.

The bill also sets a deadline of February 2018 for the project's business plan, which will indicate how developers intend to spend the $10 million secured by the governor in this year’s state budget negotiations.

Most alerts will come several seconds before a quake strikes, said Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson.

The San Andreas fault runs from the Salton Sea north to Mendocino. So if a large quake struck at one end of that fault, a person living at the opposite end could conceivably receive a warning one full minute beforehand.

But, he said, the more seconds of warning people get, the safer they'll be.

“You can take, say, a car mechanic,” Hauksson said. “If he had an alarm in his shop, he might just walk away from a lift that’s holding a big heavy car. That only takes a couple of seconds. And in school situations you could have children drop cover and hold on so they don’t get hit by glass and other debris. There are many applications of this [technology].”

For instance, mass transit operators could begin to slow down trains if they get an early warning. Ideally, hospitals, fire stations and factories also could get a notification, to keep people and property safer.

At the press conference announcing the governor’s signing, bill co-author State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) put it a little more dramatically: 

"Seconds can mean the difference between life and death," he said. 

Many sensor stations already exist throughout California – particularly in the Los Angeles area, Hauksson said. The new state funding means many more sensors will be added along the San Andreas fault from San Luis Obispo north to the Bay Area, as well as from Napa to Mendocino. It will also expand who can receive the alerts.

Japan, Taiwan and Mexico all have early warning systems already in place, and much of the technology they use was developed in California.

Hill said he hopes the system will be fully operational “within a couple of years.”

Until then, be ready to duck and cover.

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