In an earthquake, seconds can make the difference between being able to take shelter and being caught by surprise.
Seconds also matter for firefighters who are trying to save lives, so a warning system in fire stations can be critical for the public, which is depending on a quick and efficient emergency response.
That's why the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has invested in a pilot program called ShakeAlert that includes two of its seven stations so far: Station 2 in East Palo Alto and Station 4 in downtown Menlo Park. The district began the pilot program in October.
ShakeAlert taps into a network of hundreds of ground sensors that are part of the Bay Area's earthquake early warning system. When a quake with a magnitude of 4.0 or more is about to hit, an earthquake warning will sound in the stations with a countdown of the approximate time until the quake will hit, giving firefighters time to take cover and prepare to go into action when the shaking stops, according to the district.
The system will also turn off gas-operated appliances at the stations and turn on the fire stations' alerting lights.
When a magnitude 6.0 or stronger quake is about to hit, ShakeAlert will also open the fire station doors so they can't jam shut and trap fire engines inside the building.
Menlo Park was the first fire agency to tap into the system, which was created by Berkeley-based SkyAlert in tandem with the U.S. Geological Survey.
ShakeAlert uses so-called P-wave information to estimate the location and strength of the earthquake, as well as the potential for ground shaking. The P-wave, or pressure wave, is the wave that an earthquake emits before the strong shaking from the S-wave (or shear wave) arrives, which is what causes major damage, according to the USGS.
USGS ground sensors register the data produced by the P-waves to predict when the effects of a quake are going to hit at a given site.
"We want to make sure that the crews survive the earthquake," said Menlo Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. "When an earthquake strikes, people may not be in a position of safety, and the doors to the fire stations might get jammed. It would give them time to pull the trucks outside."
The district first heard about the system from the USGS, which is located down Middlefield Road from the fire district's office in Menlo Park, and from Japanese first responders who were already using the technology, he said.
The district plans to demonstrate the system during a community open house of its new Station 6 on June 22, Schapelhouman said.
The Menlo fire board on May 14 approved plans for a districtwide emergency alert system that would place devices on district property and possibly other locations to broadcast messages about half a mile in all directions to alert residents about earthquakes, fires and floods.
Board members Rob Silano and Jim McLaughlin voted against the proposal, expressing concerns about lack of coordination with cities in the district.