- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Representatives from the utility, health care, transportation and water sectors in California said Wednesday that a statewide earthquake early warning system would help prevent injuries, save lives and minimize damage.

“Just 10 seconds of an early warning can make a difference in injuries and damages,” said Roger Johnson, deputy director of the California Energy Commission. Johnson said critical valves can be turned off and dangerous equipment put down with a brief warning.

Johnson and 11 others involved with emergency response in government and the private sector testified at an informational hearing of a state senate committee organized by Sen. Alex Padilla. Padilla was the only senator present during the hearing held at San Francisco City Hall.

The Los Angeles Democrat sponsored a bill signed by the governor requiring California emergency officials to develop an earthquake early warning system.

Gov. Jerry Brown last year ordered his Office of Emergency Services to develop a comprehensive statewide system and by 2016, identify sources of funding. It would cost an estimated $80 million. Mexico and Japan have already adopted technology that provides early warnings of earthquakes.

Dr. Clement Yeh, an emergency room doctor at San Francisco General Hospital, testified that just 10 seconds advanced notice before a quake could give medical workers time to start moving patients, curtail operations and shut off dangerous instruments and machines.

Paul Coleman, deputy director of the state Office of Statewide Health Planning, said an early warning could help hospitals prepare for the injured while reducing the number of casualties because people will get out of harm’s way.

“A warning can reduce the demands on hospital emergency rooms,” Coleman said.

A Bay Area Rapid Transit official said the train agency is already participating in a pilot program. Board director John McPartland said the agency is part of a small network of researchers, government agencies and others who receive an early warning.

McPartland said BART received a 10-second notice of the 6.0 earthquake that rocked the Napa Valley region of Northern California in the wee hours of Aug. 24. But McPartland said the agency’s computers took too long to process the information and the quake had ended by the time BART officials received the warning.

Fortunately, McPartland said the strength of the quake had dissipated below a magnitude 3.5 by the time it reached BART tracks. BART trains are automatically slowed down or stopped when a warning of a magnitude 3.5 or greater is received. McPartland also said computer engineers have also eliminated the delay.

McPartland did say that BART has experienced several false alarms after workers accidentally kicked a sensor and that incidents of “false positives” need to be eliminated.

BART has installed 12 sensors near its tracks and property as part of a statewide pilot program dubbed ShakeAlert that includes a total of 300 sensors statewide.

California’s director of emergency services, Mark Ghilarducci, said many more sensors will be needed to complete an accurate statewide warning system.

Ghilarducci said state officials are about two years away from completing the system.

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