Cantwell, Feinstein to FCC: Maintain Rapid Earthquake Emergency Alert Speeds
Cantwell: We need “timely and effective early warnings”
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) led a bipartisan, bicameral group of 18 members of Congress today in calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure changes to the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system do not impair its ability to provide rapid earthquake warnings.
“Recent seismic activity along the West Coast demonstrates the need to continue developing rapid early alerts for earthquakes,” the senators wrote in their letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. "Last Friday, a 4.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Seattle region in Washington.”
The FCC is considering changes to the WEA system to improve emergency alert effectiveness during wildfires. However, those changes could have the unintended consequence of delaying alert times for earthquakes, according to a June 21 letter from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to the FCC.
“Therefore, we ask that you work with the relevant stakeholders, including USGS, to ensure that the recent WEA changes do not inadvertently impair the ShakeAlert system’s ability to provide specialized and timely earthquake warnings,” the senators continued.
In a statement, Cantwell highlighted the importance of earthquake early warnings in Seattle and throughout Washington state.
“The recent earthquake that shook the Puget Sound region is just the latest reminder that our region is prone to dangerous seismic activity, and it’s critical our emergency response systems are well-equipped to provide timely and effective early warnings,” Cantwell said.
The ShakeAlert system is an earthquake early warning system developed by the USGS to distribute public alerts along the West Coast to warn users to anticipate ground shaking from a nearby earthquake. Earthquake early warning gives people time to drop, cover, and hold. Warnings must also allow enough time to slow trains, stop industrial processes, trigger back-up generators, pause surgeries at hospitals, and halt other activities that could be affected by an earthquake.
USGS worked with a coalition of state and university partners to develop the system, including the University of Washington. It went live for testing at the beginning of 2019 up and down the West Coast.
Senator Cantwell has long prioritized increased funding for earthquake early warning systems. Earlier this year, she and Senator Feinstein sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee urging $18.6 million in funding be provided for the ShakeAlert system.
In addition to Senators Cantwell and Feinstein, the letter to the FCC was also signed by U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and U.S. Representatives Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Ken Calvert (R-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Paul Cook (R-CA), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Jerry McNerny (D-CA), and Judy Chu (D-CA).
The full text of the letter is available HERE and below.
July 16, 2019
Dear Chairman Pai,
As you work to implement changes to the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system in the aftermath of recent wildfires, we ask that you promptly consider any additional measures necessary to ensure that any changes to the system do not impair its ability to provide rapid earthquake early warning alerts.
Recent seismic activity along the West Coast demonstrates the need to continue developing rapid early alerts for earthquakes. Last Friday, a 4.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Seattle region in Washington. A magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit Southern California on July 4, followed by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake a day later – the strongest earthquake to hit the state in 20 years. While the town of Ridgecrest was too close to receive an alert through the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system before strong shaking began, other areas could have received WEA alerts in time: 15 seconds for California City, 21 seconds for Barstow and 48 seconds for Los Angeles. But these alert times would be reduced by WEA delivery latency. The success of earthquake early warning relies on extremely rapid, low-latency alert times. As a result, the recent changes to the WEA system to better geo-fence wildfire and other emergency alerts could unintentionally delay notifications and severely weaken the effectiveness of the ShakeAlert system.
Therefore, we ask that you work with the relevant stakeholders, including USGS, to ensure that the recent WEA changes do not inadvertently impair the ShakeAlert system’s ability to provide specialized and timely earthquake warnings. We understand that on June 21, USGS asked the Federal Communications Commission to consider various changes to the WEA rules to make wireless earthquake alerts more effective. We ask that your agency act on this request from USGS for clarification, waiver and rule changes as soon as possible. We also ask that you promptly address any other issues posed by the new WEA rules that stakeholders believe will affect the distribution of wireless earthquake alerts.
We appreciate the work the Commission has done to date on improving the WEA alerting system, and we look forward to working with you to continue improving emergency response capabilities in our nation.
Given the recent earthquakes in Washington and Southern California, the effectiveness of earthquake early alerts to our constituents is more critical than ever. Please provide within 30 days of receipt of this letter an update on the Commission’s plan to address USGS’s request. Thank you in advance for your assistance.
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