FEMA- 1807 - Photograph by Robert A. Eplett taken on 01-17-1994 in California

After extended efforts of design development and product testing, officials are set to make available a free telephone app to provide an early warning of an impending earthquake for Los Angeles county residents.

The app named “ShakeAlert LA” is expected to give several seconds  — and perhaps up to a minute — of alerts before actual ground movement. It would provide warnings for all quakes, including aftershocks that have a magnitude of 5.0 or higher.

Mayor Eric Garcetti held a news conference today, Jan. 3, to officially announce the rollout of the new app.

“An earthquake is a matter of ‘when, not ‘if.’ That’s why we are launching the ShakeAlert LA app,” Garcetti tweeted earlier. “You can be the one of the first to use our early warning technology.”

It would give Angelenos “critical extra seconds of warning, so if you are driving you may have time to pull over. Or if you are in an elevator you could exit,” said a spokesperson from the mayor’s office

The app is connected to an early warning system being built for California, Oregon and Washington that detects an earthquake is occurring, analyzes the data and sends out alerts before strong shaking arrives at locations away from the epicenter.

A few seconds is considered enough time for many to find protection, slow trains, halt industrial processes, trigger back-up power generators and, if necessary, pause hospital surgeries.

First Public Warning Mobile App

It is the nation’s first publicly available earthquake early warning mobile app, and was developed as part of the pilot program ShakeAlert with the US Geological Survey (USGS), AT&T and The Annenberg Foundation.

It will help you make a preparation plan, make an emergency kit, secure your property, and what to do if you are caught in an earthquake while driving, at home or at work.

“You may receive the alert before, during or after shaking,” the app tells users. “Take protective action as soon as you receive an alert or feel or hear an earthquake. Drop, cover and hold on.” 

The app is already available for download on many mobile phones including Android and Apple.

Such available technology would have been invaluable in limiting personal, and perhaps property losses in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.7, and the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.5. Both quakes devastated portions of the San Fernando Valley. In the Northridge earthquake, more than 50 percent of injuries were due to non-structural hazards, like windows or masonry falling down.

More than 143 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of the nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. 

Californians know that a major earthquake striking the state is not an “if,” but “when.” Experts predict that in the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone.

According to the ShakeAlert website, studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to longer. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.

The alert system, which has been in development for a decade, became functional last fall and Phase I testing began in California, Oregon and Washington. According to the website, the sensor network reached a target density in the Los Angeles, Bay and Seattle metro regions and version 2.0 of the alert production system has been deployed.

“We’re making a large change from a production prototype in pilot mode to an open-for-business operational mode,” noted Doug Given, earthquake early warning coordinator for USGS, back in the fall. “Now, the system is not yet finished, it’s not yet complete; there is a lot of work to be done. However, there is a lot of capability in the system as it exists today to the point that it can definitely be used.”

The early warning function will only work in Los Angeles county. The app does not need to be open, but users must set the phone’s location services to “Always On.”

“Shift Happens”

Speaking of preparation for The Big One, the Valley Economic Alliance, in partnership with Valley Nonprofit Resources and CSUN College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, will present a disaster preparedness conference on Jan. 11 from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at California State University, Northridge’s (CSUN) Student Union Center.

Entitled “Are You Prepared? Shift Happens!,” disaster preparedness experts will inform businesses and the community on ways to prepare not just for earthquakes, but also fires, floods and power outages. Workshops will be held on ways to insure the safety of your business or home, and preparing for large scales disasters.   

There will also be a breakfast, lunch, and keynote speaker sessions.

City News Service contributed to this story.

For more information on the upcoming preparedness conference, visit www.tinyurl.com/ShiftHappens2019 or call (818) 379-7000.