An early warning device might help reduce loss in quake

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On Saturday morning, Niu Pengfei was awake in bed, alone in his rented small apartment room on the fifth floor of a six-story building at Chaoyang Road, Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

Suddenly his handset gave off a high-pitched sound. It was around 8:02 a.m.

A recorded female voice from the handset counted down the numbers 28, 27, 26.... Being a subscriber of an earthquake early warning service, Niu knew what it meant. He jumped up, grabbed some clothing and moved rapidly to a corner of the room, near a table. When the counting reached one, the sound came again, terrifying, like that of an air raid alarm. And almost simultaneously, the building began to bump and sway.

When the jolting came to a halt, Niu, 23, dashed downstairs to the open ground. Many people were already gathering there.

News soon arrived that a major earthquake had occurred at Lushan County, Ya'an City, about 113 kilometers to the southwest of Chengdu proper. The quake, which China Earthquake Administration later announced to be of magnitude 7.0, caused severe damage at the epicenter and neighboring regions.

A massive nationwide rescue and relief operation kicked off instantly.

The whole picture was not much different from that of nearly five years ago, when a deadly earthquake hit Wenchuan, a city in the same region. The epicenters of the two quakes were 85 kilometers apart.

But one thing was new on the picture -- the success story of an early warning system. Its developer and operator is a non-state-owned high-tech enterprise, the Chengdu-based Institute of Care-Life (ICL).

ICL was set up in 2008 after the Wenchuan earthquake. Its founding director Wang Tun, 39, was a native of Dazhou, Sichuan, and pursued a doctorate study in the United States and postdoc research in Austria in the field of theoretical physics. Saddened by the Wenchuan disaster, he made up his mind to return and use his expertise to do something for his homeland.

Wang started with a seed fund of CHY 3 million (one US dollar to about 6.4 yuan) that he raised abroad from friends. His endeavor later won the support of local governments and the Ministry of Science & Technology, which provided him with more funds. In addition to developing software, ICL set up more than 1,200 monitoring spots in Sichuan and neighboring provinces. The network covers a total area of some 400,000 square kilometers, the largest of its kind in the world.

The earthquake early warning system, known as QuakeSolutionTM, was developed by Wang Tun and his team with full ownership of the intellectual property. The trial operation debuted in April 2011 and a year later several versions of the software were available for downloading on many smartphones. Operations in the past showed the system has a low rate of false alarm.

In the Ya'an case, ICL's early warning reported the earthquake to be of 6.4 magnitude a few seconds after it happened. The official automatic quick report initially reported 5.9 magnitude two minutes after the earthquake, and manually adjusted to 7.0 nine minutes later.

"The system proved effective and achieved its goal," said Wang, "It is regrettable that we don't have a big group of subscribers." In addition to several thousand of handset subscribers, ICL's users includes client terminal owners, TV viewers and weibo message receivers. The total number is about 420,000 people. Statistics show the population of Chengdu surpassed 14 million at the end of 2010.

"We need to do a better job in product promotion and company management, " Wang told Xinhua Tuesday on the phone. We should raise public awareness of the effect and value of early earthquake warnings, he added.

ICL has a staff of about 50 people. Apart from three administrative workers, all others are technicians.

Jing Li said she came across the software at the iphone app store. She is a fourth-year college student in Shanxi Province. She moved to Chengdu for an internship as graphic designer. "I downloaded the app because I learned Sichuan was prone to earthquakes. It made me feel a little safer, " she said.

Jing Li missed her handset's warning that morning, because she had set the gadget to silent mode. But her apartment mate's handset screamed and on running she cried out at her. When Jing returned to her room on the fifth floor a few hours later, she found the pedant lamp had fallen from the ceiling, landed at where she might have stood, broken into pieces.

Since then, Jing has kept her handset audible. She has heard warnings for several aftershocks. People on Weibo have asked her about the software, and she told them where and how to get it.

"The warning is timely. And the software is easy to handle," said Niu Pengfei, who graduated from college hardly a year ago and works as an IT maintenance worker in Chengdu.

ICL gives warnings of earthquakes of considerable intensity, usually above 2.7 magnitude, which will cause a tremor a human can feel. A user of the ICL warning software can set the starting intensity at will. Niu and Jing both set the warning intensity at third-degree and above.

"It's convenient, very good, makes me feel safe," Jing Li said.

Successful as it is, there remains a question: how helpful is the early warning system to escaping a disaster? An evaluation is yet to be done. In the Ya'an case, 28 seconds would have sufficed for most residents to flee or find safe places to stay. But then, the impact of the earthquake greatly reduced when the quake waves reached the city.

It was the people in Ya'an who needed to be warned early most. The ICL warning was no more than five seconds in advance. It is clearly not adequate, even if all people there had subscribed to the service.

Unfortunately, this situation can not be expected to be altered greatly. "It is limited by the method. There's little we can do about it," Wang Tun said.

The role the early warning system can play in human preparation against earthquakes must be supportive. It is not a solution, but should be part of multi-faceted efforts, involving sectors such as housing, education, research, engineering and medical care, experts said.

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