Taxpayer-Backed Earthquake Warnings Go to Secret List of Private Companies

San Francisco immediately following 1989's Loma Prieta quake
San Francisco immediately following 1989's Loma Prieta quake
USGS

There's an early-warning system for West Coast earthquakes that has been running in beta-testing mode for four years.

Caltech, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and the University of Oregon are sharing millions of dollars in federal funds to help build out the ShakeAlert system. Much of the cash was secured with legislation by Burbank-based U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, who has described the funding as just the tip of the iceberg for what's needed to someday see such warnings on our smartphones.

For an elite group of private companies, that day is today.

And, despite the involvement of your tax dollars, federal officials are keeping the list of those firms private. 

ShakeAlert has been developed under a public-private partnership with significant contributions, for example, from Caltech, a private university. For that reason, and despite significant contributions from your wallets, Margaret J. Vinci, the school's office manager of earthquake programs, says those private beneficiaries of the ShakeAlert warnings will remain private.

"Beta-test users are proprietary," she said. "unless they choose to disclose themselves as users."

Bullshit, we said.

But our public-information requests to federal officials, including Leah Duran, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Anne-Berry Wade, a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey, have gone unanswered since Tuesday.

One USGS spokesman got back to us yesterday after we pressed our case one more time. He reiterated the argument that the names were private for now, despite the public money involved.

"The USGS does not control the beta users' names or maintain the list," he told us. "At this point in time they are all managed by our university partners so they are really not our names to give out. Once they migrate to the new production prototype system that we control, we would certainly provide names as that would be a matter of public record."

Now, time for a couple of caveats: We reported previously that Google is one of the companies that receives the warnings. Also, Vinci of Caltech said that NBCUniversal is one of the beta testers. The company has decided to let it be known, she said.

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Public institutions that receive the alerts include the city of Los Angeles' Emergency Operations Center, the California Emergency Management Agency and Bay Area Rapid Transit, we reported previously.

The other caveat: ShakeAlert messages are not predictions or early warnings. They're simply of-the-moment virtual alarms that sound the second a major earthquake, particularly along the potent San Andreas Fault, commences.

Because of the distance between, say, the Los Angeles Basin and certain sections of that desert fault, the instant nature of the alerts could give us up to 90 seconds of warning time before the tectonic wave reaches us.

Earlier this week the office of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that a new phase of ShakeAlert was here, allowing beta users, "for the first time ever, to receive USGS ShakeAlert warnings and act on that information."

Companies and public institutions — some are llisted above — have been beta-testing the system for four years, Vinci said.

Jewell's office outlined the ideal ShakeAlert world, which will someday be open to us all.

Earthquake early warnings, once fully operational, will be issued by the USGS directly to public and private sector electronic systems and to individual smartphones and other delivery mechanisms. The alerts will allow people to move away from hazardous locations and ‘drop, cover and hold on’ before strong shaking arrives from an earthquake.

For now, hold fast.


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