Can an earthquake early warning app save lives? LA's betting on it

Thu, 2018-01-18 15:13 -- Doug Peeples

The 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake that originated about 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles in 1994 claimed about 60 lives, destroyed homes and businesses, collapsed freeways and according to estimates caused between $13 billion and $44 billion in damage. Realizing the potential for saving lives, city officials have been working with a private company and the U.S. Geological Survey to enhance the city's earthquake early warning system to enable it to send alerts to smartphones. If your city is prone to major earthquakes or expecting one sometime in the next several years now would be the time to revisit its level of preparedness and take action, as Los Angeles is doing, to keep citizens informed and maximize the potential for saving lives. — Doug Peeples

Los Angeles hasn't forgotten about the Northridge earthquake, and the city wants to be as ready as it can be for the next big one. And considering the region's proximity to the San Andreas Fault that's good thinking.

Los Angeles officials have been working with Santa Monica-based Early Warning and the USGS to enhance the city's ShakeAlert early warning network and enable it to send smartphone alerts to citizens in areas expected to be affected by earthquakes. The alerts, which are expected to be operational by the end of 2018, should give residents about a minute to get away from windows and other areas where they could be struck by falling debris, according to an article in Curbed.

When it's ready the app will not only provide alerts, but also estimates on how strong the earthquake will be, when it will begin and what people should do.

Building a total earthquake preparedness program
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been a vigorous proponent for earthquake preparedness. In 2015 he signed into law a mandatory building seismic retrofit ordinance to ensure that vulnerable buildings are strong enough to prevent loss of life. In October the city joined the worldwide Great ShakeOut, a yearly event designed to raise citizen awareness and conduct preparedness drills.

Garcetti sees the smartphone alerts and the retrofit ordinance as supporting a broad, region-wide program to save lives. As he said during his state of the city address in the spring, "By the end of 2018, we will deploy an earthquake early warning system to every corner of this city, in schools, at businesses, even on your smartphone. It will give you a head start when an earthquake is coming — precious seconds that save lives."

In related news: another approach to preparedness
Critical infrastructure in the U.S. isn’t in very good shape and hasn't been for years. It's generally old and in disrepair). In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave it a grade of 'D' in its 2017 scorecard of infrastructure that includes roads, rail, transit, waterways, solid waste, energy and more. That D, as ASCE noted, was an incremental improvement but not nearly enough.

That aging infrastructure (almost half of U.S. bridges are more than 50 years old) is why Council Global Lead Partner AT&T is testing a new infrastructure monitoring solution intended to improve road and rail safety. The company's Smart Cities Sructure Monitoring solution is based on its LTE-enabled sensors and will remotely monitor infrastructure for things like cracks and tilts — and provide email alerts when significant events happen.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.