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Electrical engineer Kesang Sherpa programs the new device installed at the City of Albany's waste water treatment plant on Friday. The city is part of a pilot program for the ShakeAlert system, a network of sensors meant to serve as an early warning system for earthquake events.

It's just one step forward, but we were nevertheless delighted to read the news about how the city of Albany has joined a pilot program for an early-warning system that eventually could provide residents and city systems a few vital seconds of warning before a major earthquake hits.

City workers last week installed a sensor in what's known as the ShakeAlert system. The system is a network of sensors that takes advantage of how energy radiates from the epicenter of an earthquake to provide those precious few seconds — enough time, perhaps, for someone to take advantage of the training they've received during the annual ShakeOut drills, and certainly enough time for automated systems to take preparatory action.

Albany officials installed the sensor into the city's central systems server, the location where city employees already have the ability to remotely close reservoir valves. And, in fact, this use in Albany offers an excellent illustration of how the ShakeAlert system can be used to minimize the amount of damage a big earthquake could cause.

Here's a brief primer on the science behind the ShakeAlert system:

Quakes produce two types of energy that radiate out from the epicenter: primary waves, which scientists call p-waves, and secondary waves, which are called (you guessed it) s-waves. Primary waves travel faster than the secondary waves and typically don't cause much destruction. It's the s-waves, lagging a few seconds behind, that cause the damage.

It's the gap between the p-waves and the s-waves — sometimes 10 seconds or so, sometimes longer, depending on how far the epicenter is located from ShakeAlert sensors — that offer the opportunity for the early warnings.

The ShakeAlert system could be extremely useful in preventing what the U.S. Geological Survey calls "cascading failures." (The USGS has been working to develop and implement the system across the West Coast.) For example, it says, isolating and shutting down utilities before shaking starts could reduce the number of fires that start after a quake. A few seconds of warning could be sufficient to slow trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems.

Or, in Albany, it could be enough time to close reservoir valves to allow those reservoirs to retain as much water as possible after the quake. That water could be delivered to residents, if transportation issues can be figured out. Or the water could be used by the Fire Department to help fight the blazes that often break out in the wake of an earthquake. If the sensor issues a false alarm (this has been a bug in the system in the places in California where the system is operational), it would be an easy matter to reopen the valves.

So the Albany sensor takes its place among the devices that already have been placed in Oregon, but there's a statewide issue: For the system to be fully operational, experts say at least 75% of the 238 proposed sites in the state need to be installed and running, and we're not there yet: At the end of this month, about 59% of the sensors will have been installed.

A bill introduced in this year's Oregon Legislature would have contributed enough state money to the system to have it be fully functional by 2023, but funding specifically designated for ShakeAlert was eliminated during negotiations on the measure — a disappointing and short-sighted result. (And one that you sense legislators already are feeling sheepish about.) The state money would have paid for more than just the sensors; it also would have funded systems to deliver warnings to the public — which, after all, is kind of the point. 

The Albany installation brings the system one step closer to critical mass. Legislators next year should take pains to close out the rest of the gap. (mm)

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