LA takes steps to protect cell phone towers from quakes

Scientists agree "the big one" will strike Los Angeles in the next 30 years. Many of the city's retrofitted buildings will survive a big quake, but what about cell phone towers? Omar Villafranca reports from Los Angeles on how the city is the first in the nation to take steps to protect the vital infrastructure.

Cell phone towers in Los Angeles are almost as common as palm trees, and sometimes they're even disguised to look like palm trees. They keep cell phones connected, but LA City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield wants to make sure mobile phones still work in LA when the next massive earthquake hits.

"It's super important because we know that it's not a question of if, it's a question of when," Blumenfield said. "And we know that communications is essential for recovery and for resiliency."

When a 9.0 earthquake shook Japan in 2011, people were left without a way to effectively communicate recovery efforts. That same year, a 5.8 earthquake shook Washington, D.C., and overwhelmed its mobile networks. That is why Blumenfield pitched an ordinance that requires new cell phone towers to not only survive a massive quake, but to keep functioning.

"Back in '94, when we had the Northridge earthquake, cell phones were just beginning," Blumenfield said. "Now, a lot of people have cut their landlines loose, and their only means of communication is cell phones."

Public buildings like City Hall in LA are already retrofitted to withstand a big jolt. Blumenfield wants to make sure first responders can still communicate and coordinate with each other in the aftermath of a massive quake.

"The cell towers are going to be different in the sense that they're going to be fortified," Blumenfield said. "They're going to have a stronger foundation. They're going to be better connected to the ground."

The ordinance could be enacted as soon as this month, without much pushback from cellular providers. The cost of a new tower might be a little more, but city leaders say it's a small price for public safety.