In The Wake of Recent Quakes Imperial County, California Deploys Earthquake Warning Technology


Late last week, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved a $250,000.00 thousand dollar award to Seismic Warning Systems, Inc. to deploy and maintain the nation’s first regional earthquake warning system. That award seems especially notable in light of the recent earthquake in Los Angeles, California which spawned the now viral #earthquakeface. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena are also working on a warning system that kicked in for that quake, but Imperial County is on pace to have technology fully deployed thanks to grant funding and a public-private-partnership.

An earthquake warning system for California has been in the works for a number of years without any real political will or dollars behind it. Then, last year, the effort got a boost  — at least legislatively — with  a new law that mandated a warning system by 2016. However, that law also stated that money for the system couldn’t come from the state’s general fund, leaving open the question of funding for deployment.

Seismic Warning Systems, a startup focused on earthquake warning technology may have an answer for the funding problem, or at least an option, and Imperial County will be the first county to try this out. The system for Imperial County will initially protect fire stations, hospitals, public dispatch centers and Imperial Irrigation District assets. The regional earthquake warning project was envisioned in the aftermath of the magnitude 7.2 Baja California Earthquake that struck on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2010.

“We have initially launched a public-private-partnership model with regional emergency managers, school districts, and developed a template for earthquake warnings that won’t require ongoing taxpayer support or ongoing government funding requests,” explains Scott Nebenzahl, a spokesman for the company, in an interview with CivSource.

The system will use a distributed technology array to provide warnings. The company designs and manufactures the patented QuakeGuard™ family of seismic detection systems, which the company says helps to avert human injury, mitigate earthquake damage to property and other assets. “We were very sensitive from the entire design and to performance standards for the product to get people to safety, in addition to market demands for reliability and robustness,” Nebenzahl says.

Neighboring Riverside County has warning systems available at some fire stations and on transit systems, however those utilize different types of technology and involve fewer critical infrastructure assets than the plan in Imperial County. Eventually this will coalesce into a Coachella Valley regional system provided funding follows.

Seismic Warning Systems is working with local businesses who also want to use the technology to maintain their own systems and assets in the event of an earthquake. This private sector adoption is helping to feed into the funding for public sector projects, and providing a workaround for the no general fund stipulation in the law. Some projections put potential losses from a major southern California earthquake in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The problem for technologists and emergency responders has always been pretty clear when it comes to earthquakes. Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes, or even volcanoes, earthquakes hit without warning. Being able to offer even a few seconds can allow people to seek shelter and/or engage operations continuity plans. Seismic Warning Systems thinks that the combination of alert types like cellphone alerts, public addresses, and emergency response can improve awareness. The company is also working with its public-private-partnership stakeholders to create a culture of preparedness around earthquakes. “It’s one thing to get a cellphone alert, but it’s another thing to have a society that is trained and prepared to understand what happens when that alert comes through in terms of emergency response,” Nebenzahl adds.

The Imperial County effort is being led by local Fire Chief Tony Rouhotas. Other statewide efforts include the Pasedena research noted above, and a USGS project in the Bay Area.


*Image from @ChrisKTLA/KTLA News