EP 69 What is a Shake Alert? And Will It Save Lives?

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What is a Shake Alert? And Will It Save Lives?


[JOSH BASHIOUM] And remind people that the building code is not as much to prevent injuries, per say, it is to prevent a total collapse or failure of a building.

[TODD DEVOE] Hi, and welcome to EM Weekly, and this is your host, Todd DeVoe, speaking. And today, we are talking to Josh Bashioum, from the earthquake early warning system. And now, if you haven’t heard of this tech, it’s amazing, it really is. And it has already saved lives in Japan and in Mexico. Basically, what it does is, it reads a wave– it’s not predicting earthquakes, but it reads a wave that comes prior to an earthquake. It gives you about a 30-second window to be able to shut down railroads, elevators, things like these, where people have died or gotten stuck.

However, before we get into this interview, I’m inviting you to come to check out EMWeekly.com and our other website, forums.emweekly.com. And this is a place just for emergency managers and responders as well, to talk about best practices and give you guys the place to communicate with each other. You can communicate directly with us at EM Weekly. And it’s really building that community of emergency managers. So, I’d love to have you guys over there, and I’ll see you at the forums. But now, let’s talk to Josh.

[TODD DEVOE] I’m super excited to have Josh Bashioum here with us today to talk about the earthquake early warning systems that they developed. And you know, we’ve seen them work in Japan and in Mexico City during the last earthquakes that we’ve had, when the early warning was able to stop elevators, and trains, and stuff like this. So Josh, welcome to EM Weekly.

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Yeah, thanks for having me, Todd. It’s a pleasure.

[TODD DEVOE] Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in what you’re doing today.

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Yeah so, you know, I got into emergency management on the volunteer side. So I became very involved in the CERT curriculum, through FEMA and the Citizen Core here in California. Really, at a fairly young age. And I got very in-depth with it, I took the train to trainer program and helped run and teach the CERT program for a large metropolitan Fire department here in LA. And you know, seven years later, after teaching thousands of students and CERT teams through the years, I really got involved in the technology aspect of emergency management, in finding ways to leverage technology to make a large impact in the future. And ultimately, that’s how we got involved in earthquake early warning.

[TODD DEVOE] That’s awesome. CERT has really done a lot of stuff as far as bringing people into the emergency management field. So, early warning. So, tell me about your early warning program, how that works, and some of the challenges that came along with developing it.

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Yeah. So I think an important piece of this to mention is that Early Warning Labs is sort of part of the distribution platform and the automated responses in response to the earthquake early warning. So, our partners do a large piece of the hard work, actually monitoring and creating the raw data that goes into the earthquake early warning that we use. So that official partner of ours is the US Geological Survey, the USGS. Along with the collaborative universities that we work with, such as Cal-Tech, Berkley, University of Washington, and University of Oregon, along with (unintelligible 00:03:47.20) over at USC.

So, through that collaboration and our official partnership with the shake alert ecosystem, we were able to create these earthquake early warnings and do mobile app alerting, to mass notification through voice evacuation on fire alarm systems, on the fire panels, through high-rise buildings, and we go as far as automating response in elevators, to slow and stop the elevators, to open the doors, right? One of the big stats up in San Francisco for the (unintelligible 00:04:18.03) scenario that came out a few weeks ago is that 20,000 people are going to get stuck in elevators. And if history kind of gives us an idea of what’s going to happen in the future, what follows a large shaking event, unfortunately, is fire.

So, being stuck in an elevator, right, that’s a way to become a smoked piece of meat, right? Especially when the fire departments are just completely overwhelmed like we saw in Northridge, right? So, if we can mitigate a huge piece of that aspect, even if it’s just elevators, right? We can really have a big impact in the post-response, and injury prevention, and life-saving.

[TODD DEVOE] How does the tech work?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Good question. So, we talked a little bit about kind of the two different pieces, right? There’s the detection aspect of it, and we can get into that. And then there is the distribution. And a big piece of that distribution is what do you do with it, once you get it delivered to a facility or an individual?

[TODD DEVOE] Right, right.

[JOSH BASHIOUM] So on the detection side, with earthquake– folks that have studied it– I think your audience is pretty familiar with the PNS waves, right? So, the P waves, typically, what we all joke about, and it’s actually fairly true is, that’s what animals are sensing and actually hearing it, right? So, these seismic waves are sound waves. So if we can detect those P waves at the speed of light, and then push those alerts ahead of the S waves, at the speed of light, we are actually outrunning the earthquake. We’re sending this alert ahead of the S waves, the damaging waves. And really, that’s what it is.

There is roughly 900 sensors-ish on the West Coast that the USGS and universities have up and running for the shake alert system, that are actively detecting P waves for every single earthquake. And when it’s over a certain threshold, we get that raw data, and we process it for each individual user, whether it’s an app user, or a college campus, or a hospital, or a high-rise building. We know, roughly, how bad the shaking is going to be, on MMI scale, the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, 1 through 10, and we roughly know how much time they have, so the countdown.

So then we can do automated responses in accordance with that, with thresholds that we set on that 1 to 10 scale. So, our hardware and software, it’s a SAAS subscription with a hardware element, we completely automate an entire facility, whether it’s a building, campus, hospital, whatever.

[TODD DEVOE] How long do you really have from when a P wave strikes out?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] So that is the big question. Absolutely, the big question. So we look at the shakeout scenario. Most emergency managers will be familiar with that, in California, and really, I think in the whole West Coast. That could be– if we look at that Salton Sea rupture starting down by the Salton Sea, where (unintelligible 00:07:02.16) on the San Andreas fault, in Downtown LA, the estimates are 57 seconds of warning.


[JOSH BASHIOUM] Which is pretty good, you know. If you look at what we’re doing right now, we’ve done some performance testing, and we can take an elevator that goes to a floor and open the doors in 12 to 15 seconds, we can slow and stop the LA metro trains in a little under 30 seconds, 24 to 27 seconds, depending on how fast they’re going, and just drop, cover, and hold on, Todd, takes just a couple of seconds. So that’s top-end, right? 50 seconds. Specifically the Northwest, they’re spoiled, they get maybe minutes of warning, which is pretty good.

But here, you know, it depends on what fault rips and how far you are from the fault, every scenario is different. So it could be literally zero notice.


[JOSH BASHIOUM] Or it could be 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 57 seconds. It just really depends on where you are, and which fault it is that ruptures. But as of now, we get zero warning for 100% of the earthquakes, right? If we could start getting early warning for 95% of the earthquakes, that is huge.

[TODD DEVOE] That saves lives, for sure. Now, are there chances of a false warning?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] You know, with technology like this, for early detection and early warning, there’s always risks of that. I mean, we’ve seen that play out, I think, most recently, with the notification in Hawaii, right? The good news with that is, that was human error. For the earthquake early warning system, the USGS has done a really fantastic job at looking at the systems in Japan, in Mexico, the after-action reports, how they performed, what the issues were, they’ve looked at their false alarms and their missed alerts. And the USGS has done a really good and thorough job of identifying how that could happen with the earthquake early warning system here in the US and addressing those issues.

So, even with all that work in it, in my opinion, being the best earthquake early warning system in the world, there’s still a chance, right? They’ve done their best to iron out all those issues ourselves, Early Warning Labs. We’ve done everything in our power to make sure that it’s as reliable as possible. So we feel confident, right? We feel very comfortable with where the system is at, but absolutely. There are limitations, there are expectations that need to be set. But you know, where we’re at now like I said, we get 0% of the warnings right now. If we can be at the 90%, that’s huge, right? That’s absolutely huge. And Berkeley’s done some research behind this, and they feel, if this is successfully implemented, we can prevent almost half of the injuries, which is huge. I mean, that is huge.

[TODD DEVOE] So, I mean, I know that if you take a look at the great shakeout (unintelligible 00:09:43.04), not specific in number, I mean, you’re talking thousands upon thousands of people potentially injured.


[TODD DEVOE] How would that work? I mean, just walk me through this, as a guy who– the technology implies magic for me. You know, I’m driving down the road, do I have an app that alerts me if there’s an earthquake coming in so I can pull over, or is this something that we can push out with the EAS message? Is this something that as an emergency manager, I could push out automatically through– you know, using mass notification?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Yeah, so we– you know, both the USGS, universities, ourselves, we’re looking at all the different platforms, right? (unintelligible 00:10:20.04) people are familiar with the term Amber Alert system. The issue with the current systems is that they’re too slow, right? They’re measuring latency in tens of seconds, if not minutes, and that is just– it eats up all the warning time. So, Early Warning Labs, we produced a free consumer mobile application, which uses the push notification function, which is fast enough. However, there are challenges once you hit a certain level of push notification messages.

So we’re working to address that right now. We’re hoping to have our mobile application released, ideally, by the end of the year. It may be prolonged, depending on the (unintelligible 00:10:57.14) testing and what not, we have to do with ourselves, and the USGS and universities. But that is working really well, right? It’s in a private beta, it’s been performing very, very well, and it’s fantastic! It’s the first earthquake early warning application here in America. And I think that’s a big benchmark, and we’re super proud of that.

But again, there’s challenges with that. So that brings me to sort of the other side of Early Warning Labs, and that is the commercial integration. That system is guaranteed. That system has the highest performance possible, right? We’re talking maybe a second or two between receiving and then doing something within an entire facility. From the audible notification to the mechanical automation. That is what we feel is the best way to mitigate the majority of the death and the majority of the injury.

Mobile application is good; however, there is– I mean, just overriding the silent function, or the vibrate function, or the do not disturb function on an iPhone is nearly impossible without special privileges from Apple. And most people at work have their phone on vibrate, or off, or you’re asleep, and you don’t want it to be waking you up in the middle of the night. So, you know, like I said, just a lot of challenges with mobile, so that is kind of our best effort product. We want it to be free, we want everyone to have it, but there’s just challenges with that. We want to see this in every single school, every single office building, every single apartment building. Anywhere that’s got a PA system, a radio system, IP phone system. We can do the alerts on all those different platforms. That is the most reliable way to do this.

[TODD DEVOE] So based on that, I know that the early warning system worked in Japan during– when they had the large earthquake, that must be six years or seven years.


[TODD DEVOE] And it stopped elevators, and it got people down to the bottom floor in a timely manner where they weren’t injured. And realistically, the earthquake didn’t cause a lot of the injuries, it was the tsunami afterwards that caused much of the injury.


[TODD DEVOE] And we saw it working in Mexico last fall, I guess when they had two earthquakes, back-to-back. One was in Mexico City on the 30th anniversary of the Mexico City earthquake. And it worked then. It stopped elevators as well, I think it might have stopped the train if I’m correct. And so, this is the system that we have here. What are some of the challenges that you’ve had really getting that system that’s known – it’s been known in Mexico, it’s been known in Japan. What are the challenges that you have with getting this implemented here in the United States?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] A large portion of this was proving that our platform was reliable and met the requirements and the standards with the USGS and the universities. Which had met and exceeded that, and we’re very proud of that? The other piece was making sure that the system was vetted and tested, the earthquake early warning, the detection side. And that we got rid of those false alarms and those issues to the best of science’s ability. And I feel that is done.

The biggest one now is identifying the bottlenecks in mobile alerting, addressing those, and public education. A lot of people don’t even know that the shake alert earthquake early warning system exists. In fact, if you’re outside of California, in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably never heard of it. A lot of the press and media that we’re doing is very important because it’s educating people on the technology, so when it actually is implemented in their building, they’re like, “Oh wow, this is fantastic, I heard about this on the EM Weekly podcast, it’s fantastic.”

So, you know, I thank you for the invitation to participate in this, because I think this is doing a great service to educate folks and get them familiar with this. And most importantly, people that we’re having to interface with and educate, emergency managers at these facilities, they’re typically the point of the spear on getting this implemented within a facility.

[TODD DEVOE] So, Dr. Lucy Jones, Craig Fugate, Administrator Brock Long, have all mentioned this system and how useful it is. And so, you’re getting obviously those type of people to really buy into it. Have you had any issues with trying to get elected officials or industry leaders to buy in? Is that a challenge

[TODD DEVOE] Have you had any issues with trying to get elected officials or industry leaders to buy in? Is that a challenge?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] You know, the support is definitely there. We’ve had some back and forth regarding the federal funding, but the representatives, they knew this system was there, the support, you know, they rallied behind the earthquake early warning system. And you know, with the new (unintelligible 00:16:46.15) bill that was passed, it actually doubled the funding of the Shake Alert system, which is fantastic. So the money is now there, the support clearly is there, they were able to pass that new funding.

So really, it’s coming down to state and local, helping with the education and really getting people familiar with that. There’s PSA’s and things that are in the works that are going to come out, and hopefully, billboards and social media campaigns, and discussions like these that are really going to get people familiar with it. But yeah, that funding challenge, in our opinion, has been tackled, and I think really well. The funding has been doubled, so we can all rest easy knowing that the system is here to stay.

And kind of the interesting piece of the funding is that a large portion of the initial funding for the Shake Alert system was private. It was a grant funding from the (unintelligible 00:17:33.05) Foundation, together with Berkeley and Cal Tech. That’s how the initial proof of concept was built, years, and years, and years ago. And now, the Feds have stepped up to continue to make sure that the funding is there, and the system is maintained, so that’s a huge step.

[TODD DEVOE] Is this something that we need to get into our building codes?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] From a business standpoint, that would be great for Early Warning Labs. From a public safety standpoint, taking off my founder hat and going back to my first responder hat, I think that is going to be vital to the implementation and to make sure that we prevent these injuries. While the costs are affordable and low, for our platform, and it makes sense for facilities to implement it, there is still a cost associated with it, you know?

We’re doing everything we can to have the mobile application be free, and that’s a commitment that I’ve made personally, both to my friends as first responders, to the USGS and the universities. That we want every single person to have this, to the best of our ability, in their hands. But the best way to do that is through commercial integration. And unfortunately, there’s costs associated with that. So you know, the values there, I think just to make sure we get wide adoption and get the most penetration as possible, there should be some sort of policy implemented, whether it’s true NFPA or local Fire codes, building codes, that this be an option– well, rather, be a requirement than an option, I think it’s going to be an important step.

[TODD DEVOE] Well, I mean, it’s like anything else. You know, sprinkler systems, for the longest time, after they got required, weren’t in anything, outside of the hotels and businesses. And then they got into residential just recently, right?


[TODD DEVOE] So, we’re used to moving forward. But the hard question here is, can we, or what’s the expense, I should say, on retrofitting current buildings, compared to new construction?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Yeah, so that’s a great question, Todd, great observation. You know, there are two kinds of ways to approach this. If you have a facility that is fairly dangerous in an earthquake, you can look at earthquake early warning as– not a replacement to retrofit, but a good bridge to that process.

Earthquake early warning integration to a facility is much cheaper than an entire facility retrofit. You know, you’re talking hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to retrofit a large facility versus, you know, in the thousands of dollars, right? To be able to do an earthquake early warning system within that facility. So, it’s two different things, and it’s sort of two different purposes. Lucy Jones, she would talk about, and remind people that the building code is not as much to prevent injuries per say, it is to prevent a total collapse or failure of a building, right?

So to prevent death, right? And crushing. So, reminding people of that and saying, your building, your elevators, your façades, your internal drywall, equipment, things like that, it’s not really part of the building code. That stuff can crush you, and kill you, and injure your personnel. The building code, if you’re lucky, it’s just going to prevent your facility from collapsing. So even something built to code– you know, we go, and we talk to people, they say, “This building can withstand an 8.0.” I say, well yeah, prevented from collapsing. But your occupants still have a pretty significant risk, so that’s where the earthquake early warning system can be a huge benefit.

[TODD DEVOE] And putting that into the elevator, how does that work?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] So, a lot of elevators have an existing seismic recall built in. However, that, in itself, is set up to shut down the elevator when a dangerous level of shaking is met. So when that counterweight with the elevator starts swinging and banging against the side, the damage is already happening to the elevator. This is just really trying to prevent an elevator from plummeting to the bottom, right? That’s what they’re trying to prevent, and then hopefully, trying to prevent some future damage.

We met with Otis, right? They’re the leader with earthquakes in the world for that. I’m sorry, leader in elevators in the world. And they looked at this technology and said, this is fantastic! Integrating this with the elevators could save 10, 20 thousand dollars per elevator bank in a big earthquake, by preventing that elevator from moving when the shaking starts and getting those doors open, to prevent those entrapments. So even if the building has seismic recall, that’s great, that’s kind of an analogue. We look at this as a 2.0 solution. This is a solution that is far beyond that.

[TODD DEVOE] Back to elevators. I know that when we had elevator work done in my building, just to have a new carpet put in, we had to have elevator specialists come in and do it. You couldn’t just hire a carpet person.

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Yeah, yeah, sounds about right.

[TODD DEVOE] It’s a weird rule, right? So, are you guys working with like, elevator installation companies and stuff like these to– where I could call somebody tomorrow and say, “Hey, I want to put this in my elevators and in all my buildings?”

[JOSH BASHIOUM] We’ve been talking and working on some projects with the leaders in that space. That’s a slow process, right? There’s some (unintelligible 00:22:55.06) approvals that need to be done at each facility to do elevator integration. That’s an area where policy and code could help quite a bit. Because it is very heavily regulated. So, having support in that space is very important, and I think we’re getting quite a bit of that now, with some of the projects we have, (unintelligible 00:23:12.24) the elevators, and working with those OEMs and service providers, and the state agencies, for that matter.

There is similar challenges on the fire alarm side. The reason we like to integrate with fire alarms is because it penetrates the facility, right? You have fire alarms in bathrooms and closets all over. There are some NFPA– there is some new language that allows for voice evacuation and emergency notification within certain guidelines, and we fall within that. There’s a big education piece, of course, with the fire departments and getting them kind of familiar with the technology, so we’re doing that with the cities here. It’s a process, but you know, getting it integrated, I think, it’s fairly straightforward now.

[TODD DEVOE] What is your projection on actually rolling this program out, say, nationwide?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] So, in SO Cal, we’re working with, nearly, all the leading cities, the (unintelligible 00:24:05.13) organizations that are leaders in this space, whether it’s health care and attainment, manufacturing, residential, and having this technology installed there. And we’re going to be critical mass, right? So I think people are really going to see this, and will actually start to hear stories, right? Where there’s a story out there that a resident left a competing condo building and moved into one of our locations where our system was installed because she was definitely afraid of earthquakes, and she said, if I can get up to a minute warning in this building, I’m moving there! Right? And I know I’m not going to get stuck in the elevator and burn to death, I know I can get in and out of the gates because Early Warning Labs is automating those gates to open, so we’re not stuck inside.

That’s huge! And she literally sold her other unit and moved into this building. And that’s huge, right? I think that kind of shows that people really, really appreciate this technology. And getting management behind it, and understanding that, and supporting it is important, and I think we’re starting to see that become– that start to happen.

[TODD DEVOE] What can we do as emergency managers, public safety professionals, what can we do to support your organization and support the concept of early warning?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Education. You know, I think the core team– I guess, the majority of emergency managers are familiar with earthquake early warning. They might not be up to speed as far as where it is, and that it’s actually commercially available now, and that’s just from– you know, a limited amount of resources, right? From reaching out and getting those folks to understand that. But I think putting together kind of working groups within the organizations and bringing in folks like Early Warning Labs to come in and just educate people on what earthquake early warning is and what the benefits are.

And you know, if it’s not us, talk to Cal Tech, talk to Berkeley, talk to the USGS, to get some education about it. And start looking at how this can fit into budgetary cycles. How this can be integrated in facilities because there is– just get that dialogue going. Once people are familiar with that, then the process is pretty straightforward.

[TODD DEVOE] If someone wanted to get a hold of you, how would they do so?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Yeah, they can go to our website, EarlyWarningLabs.com, or they can shoot us an email, info@earlywarninglabs.com. And that’s probably the best way to get a hold of us. And we’re happy to come out and give an introduction into earthquake early warning, and we can talk about that and educate folks. You know, we don’t go into the system, we just talk about kind of what current users are doing, and how it can help benefit and protect employees and staff. We’d love to do that. But of course, our website has got a lot of good information, and the contact form is on there, and there’s a wait list that people can sign up for the mobile application too. So they can get the first access if they sign up on the website and get on that list.

[TODD DEVOE] If you guys are driving or don’t have a pencil with you, don’t fret, we’ll have this information down in the show notes as well. So, yeah. Just make sure to click on the stuff and reach out. Ok, so we’re coming up to the end here, and I’ve got the toughest question of the day for you. What book or books do you recommend for somebody along this line of work?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] That’s a great question. There is very limited publications out there, as far as earthquake early warning goes. There are some really interesting studies and reports, actually, out there, that if people really are interested in learning more about this, that they can look at that, that would be The Earthquake Early Warning Implementation Plan, by the USGS. They can go to the USGS website, and they can just search for that, and that will pop up, it’s a PDF.

Of course, Lucy Jones. She’s got some great books, the big ones. Also, a great read, which talks about kind of the hazards, not just with the benefits of earthquake early warning, but she talks a lot about retrofit, water systems, and just resiliency to seismic issues in general, which is great. And if people want to get really into the weeds about how the mobile challenges, there’s a report, it’s called Earthquake Early Warning Feasibility Study, by ATIS, which is an organization funded by the (unintelligible 00:28:08.07), that they did a big research study on kind of the challenges associated with mobile alerting. So, those are some good resources there for people to learn more. And of course, our website has got some great information, and the USGS, and university page ShakeAlert.com has some great resources.

[TODD DEVOE] Very good, awesome. Before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to say to the emergency managers out there?

[JOSH BASHIOUM] That they know now that earthquake early warning is real, it’s live, it’s available to qualifying organizations, and just bring it up at the next meeting. I think that’s the best thing the can do and say, “Hey, who here knows about earthquake early warning? Let’s talk about it.”

[TODD DEVOE] Alright, Josh. Thank you so much for your time today, I’m excited to have you here on the show, and I’m looking forward to hearing from you (unintelligible 00:28:54.15).

[JOSH BASHIOUM] Cool, Todd. I appreciate it, you rock! Great podcast, and love that you’re getting the word out there, I appreciate it.

Related Shows

EP 31 “Quakeland” The Story of the Moving World with Kathryn Miles

EP 32 The Great ShakeOut with Mark Benthien

EP 59 What is a Resilient Community

EP 63 How To Protect Critical Infrastructure

EP 67 The Reason Why You Need To Embrace Resiliency


Twitter: https://twitter.com/smashembashioum

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/homeland-advisory-group/


Website: https://earlywarninglabs.com/

Email: josh@earlywarninglabs.com

Phone: (424) 238-0060

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