What if we were to tell you that L.A. has an earthquake warning system that pretty much works, but that only a few folks will get the precious alerts?

It's true.

The U.S. Geological Survey's prototype “Shake Alert” system has been running since January. It can theoretically warn you as much as 90 seconds before the Big One hits. Here are the institutions that would be warned if it happened today:


-Bay Area Rapid Transit.

-The city of Los Angeles' Emergency Operations Center.

-California Emergency Management Agency.

This is all according to Doug Given, the USGS' National Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator, who's based in Pasadena:

We have an operating demonstration system and some users are getting the system. We really only had that capability since about January. But it's not ready for prime time because of funding issues.

He says Metrolink, Southern California Edison and Amgen are on the short list of institutions that will likely get hooked up to the warning system next.

It's done through the internet, with dedicated software that Given's team designed.

Last night USGS seismologist Lucy Jones described to reporters how the system would work if the Big One were to hit today:

Because the epicenter could be miles away along the San Andreas fault — say in the Salton Sea — we could find out that a quake is happening before it reaches us, essentially.

So it's not a prediction. It's an alarm indicating that a groundswell has started and is on its way.

But for now Shake Alert only applies to the San Andreas, she said. Given said the prototype aims at a statewide warning system, with focal points being L.A. and the Bay Area.

The Northridge Fashion Center parking lot, flattened by a quake in '94.; Credit: Eric Gelinas

The Northridge Fashion Center parking lot, flattened by a quake in '94.; Credit: Eric Gelinas

In a San Andreas Big One scenario, it would be possible to get a 45 second warning in downtown Los Angeles, Jones said:

Our prototype system is doing that now … Given the ground motion, the collapse of high rises is a real scenario.

So, the BIG question is, when are the rest of us going get this system? Mexico has it. So does Japan.

“They spent money investing in a system,” Jones said. “We haven't.”

She said the federal government has dedicated about $250,000 for the system this year. Given said it would take a good $5 to $10 million a year “to build it out.”

A $6 million grant was recently given to university researchers to help develop the prototype.

Right now, Given said, there are less than 20 people throughout the state — including in Pasadena and Berkeley — working to the system.

There are technical limitations, even if the USGS got the cash it needs: While TV and radio could warn us through the federal Emergency Broadcast System, text messages, as seen in Mexico and Japan, would still be a ways off:

Our cellular system doesn't allow for immediate text blasts, and even if the USGS could text out warnings, some folks wouldn't get the alerts for hours. That's a phone company issue. And they're working on it.

Still, with all the pork barrel politics in Washington — there are billions dedicated to a bullet train in California — we're surprised that Sen. Dianne Feinstein or Sen. Barbara Boxer can't bring home this bacon. It's a political no-brainer.

Given notes that …

… if there's a big earthquake tomorrow that kills Americans, we'll get the funding.

So true.

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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