Los Angeles Rolls Out Early Warning Earthquake App

The city of Los Angeles has unveiled an earthquake early warning app for Android and iOS smartphones, which can currently be downloaded from app stores. 

Created under the oversight of Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city, ShakeAlertLA has been designed to tap into the US Geological Survey's early warning system, which has been under development for several years. The app is designed to give users seconds (and perhaps even tens of seconds) of warning before shaking from an earthquake arrives at a user's location. 

"ShakeAlertLA sends you information when a 5.0 or greater earthquake happens in Los Angeles County, often before you feel shaking," according to the app's description. 

The app, which is also available in Spanish, was built under a contract with AT&T. It was published quietly online on New Year's Eve, and by Wednesday morning, users of social media had already found it and begun tweeting their excitement about the release of the app.

For more than a year, the mayor has talked about providing an earthquake early warning app for Los Angeles residents, even as it seemed that making it a reality would be difficult.

But in October, Garcetti seemed optimistic that ShakeAlertLA would be unveiled by the end of 2018 if it passed initial testing among thousands of city employees. -LA Times

"By advancing earthquake early warning technology, we are making Los Angeles stronger, making Angelenos safer," Garcetti told reporters in October. "And it'll help save lives, most important, by giving people those precious seconds to stop elevators, to pull to the side of the road, to drop, cover and hold on."

"All that will not happen the first day we launch," Garcetti noted, "But together, with the private sector, we will build the software and the hardware that will allow us to be able to anticipate and react to an earthquake before we even feel it here."

The system could soon be made available broadly across the state. 

Josh Bashioum, founder of the Santa Monica company Early Warning Labs, which has been closely working with the USGS, said it hopes to release a beta version of its app, QuakeAlert, to as many as 100,000 test users across California soon.

So far, 90,000 people have signed up to be on the company's wait list. That release will be kept on a test basis as experts determine whether there are any bottleneck delays in issuing push alerts. -LA Times

According to the Times, the early warning system will allow utilities to turn off large high-pressure fuel lines, and even stop trains. 

Earthquake early warning systems work on a very simple principle: Seismic shaking moves at the speed of sound through rock - while modern communications systems are much faster. Earthquake sensors which detect a tremor starting at, say, the Salton Sea could sound the alarm in Los Angeles 150 miles away - providing residents with perhaps over a minute to prepare. 

The system is not likely to be perfect, especially in its first few years of service. As residents of Japan, Mexico and other places that already have the alerts have learned, the system comes with false alarms and missed warnings. And early warnings probably won't be possible for users at the epicenter of a quake.

Yet the early warning systems have had tremendous support in other countries because the benefits when the systems work far outweigh the disappointments. The system helped prevent deadly derailments of high-speed trains in Japan before shaking arrived from the magnitude 9.1 earthquake of 2011, for instance, signaling the trains to slow down. Memorably, the national Japanese broadcaster NHK aired an earthquake warning about 90 seconds before the strongest shaking arrived in Tokyo. -LA Times