California Gets $5 Million for Earthquake Early Warning System

The California Integrated Seismic Network's Earthquake Early Warning Demonstration System counts down to a simulated 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The California Office of Emergency Management conducted the earthquake drill in March of 2013. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

In a major move for earthquake safety, Congress set aside $5 million to expand an early warning system that could give Californians valuable time to brace for shaking.

The system is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and also extends to Oregon and Washington. It could alert the public when seismic waves are spreading so that trains can brake, utilities can be shut off and people can seek cover.

"It's very exciting," noted U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, adding that this is "life-saving technology."

This boost in funding comes as part of the $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by Congress, according to a joint statement Monday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank.

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Feinstein called it "a down payment" and added that "more funding is necessary to complete the system."

Scientists have tried to make the alert system publicly available, but money has been a problem. The USGS says it needs $16 million a year to build out and maintain the warning system. Currently the USGS is testing a limited network developed in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington.

"We're well behind other countries that have successfully put this into place," noted Rep. Schiff.

California trails Japan, Mexico and other earthquake-prone areas in developing a public alert system.

Schiff hopes this initial funding will "jumpstart the state Legislature to also, not only voice support for [the early warning system], as it has, but also put the money down on the table."

Last year, California legislators passed a bill last year asking officials to set up a seismic early warning system. They have until January 2016 to get funding for it in place.

The earthquake early warning system doesn't predict quakes. Rather, it's able to send alerts as soon as shaking begins near a fault.

Specialized sensors detect the first rumblings of a quake and blast out a warning that travels roughly the speed of light.

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