White House, tech companies launch earthquake survival system

An executive order signed Tuesday was bolstered by pledges from tech giants like Amazon and Intel

Experimental earthquake early-warning technology for the West Coast, known as ShakeAlert, is being deployed by the U.S. Geological Survey — a move highlighted Tuesday when President Barack Obama signed an executive order to bolster the country’s preparedness for seismic events.

The order establishes standards for new and renovated federal buildings, designed to make them more survivable through earthquakes by a combination of infrastructure and technology. It comes with a coordinated series of moves from federal agencies, state and local governments, academics, and private sector companies, all aimed at reducing the risks to the 143 million Americans who are vulnerable to “potentially damaging” earthquakes. 

That figure, from a 2015 USGS report, has doubled since 2006.  

The United States Forest Service and the Federal Communications Commission also announced Tuesday they will cooperate with USGS to place seismic scanners in parks and usher in a new era of geo-targeted alerts, respectively.


State, local and private entities around the country also took steps in support of the executive order, pledging to ensure that building codes are up-to-date and announcing research grants that will further the scientific community’s understanding of seismic threats.

“Washington state takes very seriously the risks that earthquakes and tsunamis pose to our people and communities. Being prepared makes all the difference between lives lost and lives saved,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee said. “It’s essential that all levels of government continue to improve our preparedness and response capacity for these events.”

Scientists a the University of California-Berkley, recipients of part of a $3.6 million grant from the the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, will work to integrate smartphone sensors into the ShakeAlert grid, potentially harnessing millions of data points that will help predict the onset of an earthquake. They will be joined by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Washington, who will attempt to streamline the alert decision-making process and pursue the possibility of installing sensors on the ocean floor near the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

The order was also applauded by industry giants like Amazon and Intel, which spoke to the importance of implementing risk management standards to businesses.

“Intel views ShakeAlert as a key part of its Crisis Management program, and has pledged to lead efforts to bring the high-technology community to the table to support it. The business impacts from a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake would be extreme,” read a statement included in a White House fact sheet. “Intel’s leadership role will catalyze their suppliers and customers, as well as other businesses, to support the ShakeAlert system.”

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