ShakeAlert is an earthquake early warning system being developed by a host of organizations and government entities, including Cal OES, for California, Oregon and Washington. This past Fall the system "became sufficiently functional and tested to begin Phase 1 of alerting." This means some businesses and agencies, including BART, are operating on alerts, but total implementation is still, at minimum, two years away.
With even a few seconds of warning much can happen to mitigate the damage and loss of life from an earthquake, including:
- Public Warning – Alert individuals to take protective actions such as Drop, Cover, and Hold On.
- First Responder Mobilization – Open fire station doors for rapid deployment of emergency response equipment and personnel.
- Health Care – Notify medical providers to stabilize and/or stop delicate procedures and maintain critical medical facility operations.
- Utility Infrastructure - Safeguard energy sector grid and other utilities' infrastructure for strong shaking with warning alarms and automatic controls to prevent combustions, flooding, and loss of water distribution systems.
- Mass Transit Systems – Prevent fatal collisions or derailments by automatically slowing and/or stopping trains, clearing bridges, and diverting inbound airport traffic.
- Workplace Safety – Employees take protective actions, initiate elevator recall procedures to ground floor, place sensitive equipment in safe mode, secure hazardous materials, and halt production lines to reduce damage.
A system similar to ShakeAlert is used in Japan and was developed after the Kobe earthquake in the mid nineties. In the U.S. the cost to fully implement ShakeAlert is estimated to be somewhere just shy of $40 million. To put that in perspective, earthquake damage could easily be in the tens of billions of dollars, and potentially into the hundreds of billions of dollars. ShakeAlert could substantially mitigate damage.
This, of course, begs the question, "why don't we just fund it and get it done"? You would think insurance companies alone would be willing to fund a system like this. One of the reasons contemplated in recent articles is that we haven't had a catastrophic earthquake in so long that it is not top of mind. Classic Myopia Bias, Optimism Bias, and a failure of our public officials to be proactive. Reminds us of the catastrophic consequences suffered by New Orleans when government officials suffered from Inertia Bias and failed to prepare for Katrina when they effectively had a one year warning.