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California's Earthquake Early-Warning System Faces Obstacles

MENLO PARK (KPIX 5) – While California is trying to set up an earthquake early-warning system, officials say they are facing obstacles to getting it up and running.

The U.S. Geological Survey says an earthquake early-warning system is still years away from widespread use in California, despite the fact that the technology is already in place and working in countries like Mexico and Japan.

"The other systems in the world were built after large, damaging and often deadly earthquakes," said USGS geophysicist Doug Given. "And those earthquakes produced the political will to invest in and build an early-warning system."

An early-warning system could give people a few seconds, perhaps even as much as a minute, of warning before an earthquake struck.

But despite the ever-present danger, California's system has been hampered by a lack of funding and other technological challenges.

Currently the state has built roughly half of the nearly 1,700 earthquake-monitoring stations -- about 859 total – that it needs to detect quakes and alert the public.

"The biggest issue is funding. The system is simply not fully funded," said Given.

THE USGS estimates it will cost roughly $38 million to complete construction and another $16 million a year to maintain the system.

Researchers are sharing alerts with a handful of public agencies like BART or the Menlo Park Fire Department, where the information is used to slow or stop trains or roll up the firehouse doors before the shaking starts.

But the one place you won't get an alert -- at least not this year -- will be on cell phones.

"The technology simply isn't there to guarantee that everyone will get a timely alert through a cell phone," said Given. "We'd like to do that but it's simply not technologically possible."

The USGS says cell-phone alerts are likely three to seven years away; a long time when the next major quake can hit with a moment's notice.

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