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In July 2015, The New Yorker published an alarming story written by Kathryn Schultz about an impending mega earthquake stemming from the Cascadia Subduction Zone in the Pacific Northwest. The story went viral and the reaction was summed up in the BuzzFeed post by Stephanie McNeal: “People are freaking out.” Schultz’s article illustrates in colorful detail how it’s only a matter of time before seismic activity along the fault could cause a 9.2 earthquake as well as a 100 feet tall tsunami that would obliterate everything west of Interstate 5 and destroy large swath of the Pacific Northwest, including all of Seattle and Portland. In response, the Seattle Times decided to write a piece aimed at alarming the public even more. Why? We see it as a wake-up call because Washington and Oregon government agencies have a lot of work to do in the way of implementing earthquake early warning systems, emergency management and disaster recovery plans. McNeal highlights that Schultz’s article presents an opportunity for contractors currently providing these systems and services in California: “There was some optimism. Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times wondered if the story could stir some improvements in earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest.”

How Prepared are Pacific Northwest Government Agencies for Earthquakes?

Reports and articles have been published for years, especially after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan, but until Schultz’s article, these reports were not very popularized and more importantly, agencies in Washington and Oregon have yet to allocate significant funds to establish the types of systems that will help save lives in the event of a natural disaster.

This wake-up call should encourage agencies to move forward more quickly with plans to mitigate earthquake risks. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) began testing a prototype of an earthquake warning system called ShakeAlert in February 2015. However, a full rollout of the warning system is predicted to take at least two years. California is much more prepared. According to Sandi Doughton from The Seattle Times, “Businesses are already springing up in California to help companies and agencies integrate earthquake alerts into their systems,” such as Early Warning Labs (EWL). According to the company’s website, EWL is “developing a robust cloud server environment to handle low-cost mass distribution of these warnings” and is creating “automated response systems that allow public and private users to take pre-defined automated actions to protect lives and assets” such as automatically open firehouse bay doors during an alert so firetrucks are not trapped inside and quickly shut down and isolate gas lines, water treatment plants and nuclear reactors.

Agencies that are Taking Action

We decided to look in Onvia’s Project Center to find signs of earthquake-related early warning systems, emergency management or disaster recovery initiatives. Not surprisingly, of the three states, California holds 77% of all 1,010 bids & RFPs over the last year. These initiatives cover everything relating to a seismic event from earthquake insurance coverage to emergency supplies to debris removal. Across the US, 94% of bids specifically related to earthquake emergency preparedness were in California; only 1% were in Washington and Oregon, suggesting there is an underserved market in these states where vendors of emergency management systems, services and products can find business and help agencies mitigate disaster and save lives. Examples of projects in the three states include:

 
In December 2014 began seeking proposals from vendors with demonstrated expertise in structural engineering, earthquake engineering research, performance-based earthquake engineering, non-linear dynamic response analysis, tall building design, earthquake hazard determination and ground motion characterizations, to provide seismic performance reviews for building permit requests for specific types and sizes of buildings.
 
 
Issued an RFP in February 2015 called the “2015 Data Interpretation Project.” The goal of the project is to further the understanding of strong ground shaking and the response of buildings and other structures, and to increase the utilization of strong-motion data to improve seismic code provisions, seismic design practices and post-earthquake response.
 
 
Issued a bid in May 2015 for earthquake early warning systems and service including: Alarm services back-up systems, battery operated 411/911 dispatching services for fire, police and medical services, emergency personnel, emergency monitoring systems with alarms and operational readiness reporting, emergency warning systems maintenance and repair, incident management response services, installation of security and alarm equipment monitoring services and disaster debris and recovery.
 

Contracting Hotspots that Can Help in Emergencies

One technology that is considered contracting “hotspot” in 2015 is Geographic Information Systems (GIS). As reported in Onvia’s 10 Hotspots in Government Contracting, these systems “allow agencies to manage and analyze geographic-linked data to solve problems and make smarter decisions.” Though we found many awards for GIS technology in Onvia’s platform, there were very few specifically for earthquake research, again suggesting that this is an underserved market for vendors to pursue with agencies. According to ESRI, maker of ArcGIS Online, GIS can: Help manage the impact of earthquakes and collect data from a variety of locations or agencies quickly under adverse conditions; assess risk and hazard locations in relation to populations, property and natural resources; understand of the scope of an emergency; recommend preventive and mitigating solutions; determine how and where scarce resources should be assigned; prioritize search and rescue tasks; identify staging area locations, operational branches and divisions; assess short- and long-term recovery operations. One example of GIS in use is in California:

 
Awarded PlaceWorks $1,650,000 in June 2014 to assemble GIS data and prepare a base map to describe potential impacts related to seismic shaking, liquefaction, erosion, expansive soils and subsidence, and suggest revisions to these policies or new policies, if necessary, in order to mitigate potential geotechnical impacts.
 

911 dispatch systems, another “hotspot” in government contracting, need to be up and running throughout an emergency situation. In addition, agencies also need to quickly communicate with their constituents. One recent example of better communication to the public during an emergency is:

 
In May 2015 awarded Rave Mobile Safety, a company that specializes communication software for emergency preparedness and faster response, a five year contract worth $120,000 for a hosted, cloud-based emergency notification system that ensures continuity of operations during disaster events and high throughput, reliable communications networks to support alerting volumes in a city-wide emergency. The system meets FEMA IPAWS system requirements and utilizes common communication technologies like email, social media and text messaging.
 

What Happens Next?

Members of Congress are urging their colleagues to allocate $16.1 million in the next federal budget for an earthquake early warning system for Washington, Oregon and California which could give people as much as a minute’s warning before severe shaking arrives. But the estimated cost to build and establish this system in all three states is $38.3 million; $16.1 million is needed annually to operate it. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank, CA) said in a Los Angeles Times interview:

In a way, we’re in a race for time. We know we're going to have another major earthquake -- it’s just a question of when. And I think a lot of us will really be kicking ourselves if we take too long to build out this system and we don't give people the advanced warning that could have saved their lives or saved their property.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank, CA)

Looking ahead to the future, are agencies planning to allocate more funds to early warning systems, emergency management or disaster recovery initiatives in Washington and Oregon? According to data from Onvia’s Spending Forecast Center, the answer is yes.

 
Includes a new emergency response and recovery plan. The budget states that emergencies and natural disasters like earthquakes can occur with little to no advance warning and a major, widespread incident may isolate the city; significant assistance from nearby county, state or federal agencies would not materialize for at least 72 hours. The city needs to be prepared to meet the initial needs of its residents, visitors and day-time population for at least that duration. The plan includes training to help reduce casualties, infrastructure and property damage, loss of services and human suffering in the event of a wide-spread emergency or disaster.
 
 
Addresses the lack of preparation and post-disaster resilience in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. The budget plans for: Comprehensive assessments of key structures and systems; seismic retrofitting at schools and emergency service buildings to prevent loss of life and continue operations of emergency services during and following a large earthquake; seismometers to monitor earthquake and volcanic hazards which can support an earthquake early warning system in Oregon and Washington; use of GIS data, field data with published studies, aerial photos and LiDAR. Governor Kitzhaber says, “This information is essential for designing effective and affordable measures for the mitigation of risk, and for education and outreach activities that build a culture of preparedness and more resilient communities.”
 
 
Recommends $150,000 to hire a consultant to help develop an earthquake model that predicts areas of peak impact to the water system in the event of an earthquake. Results will inform development of the required “Water Master Plan”, construction design criteria and standards, and a “Hazard Mitigation Plan.” The outcome will also facilitate future long-range planning, establish groundwork to apply for future grant funding to offset costs of mitigation activities and enhance the ability to ensure customers continue to receive water in the event of an emergency. The Clackamas River Water [CRW] district proposal states that “an earthquake in the Portland Hills fault or the Cascadia Subduction Zone is the most significant hazard that can impact CRW.”
 

Government Contractors Can Make an Enormous Impact

Emergency preparedness and the implementation of early warning systems can be a hard sell until a disaster happens. In a recent episode of Disaster Zone TV titled Earthquake Risks and Warning in Seattle Emergency Management expert Eric Holdeman interviewed Bill Steele from the University of Washington Seismology Lab about the earthquake risks from all the various seismic faults in the Puget Sound and coastal Northwest and what seismic warning systems can do to help. Holdeman echoes Rep. Adam Schiff’s sentiment saying, “It always comes down to [federal] funding … We'll have all the funding we need for this warning system right after the next big earthquake -- that just seems to be how the political system works. We can't bring ourselves to fund disaster mitigation until we have experienced a calamity.” Add to the mix, the Pacific Northwest is exposed to additional dangers: Many in the area live above crustal fault lines, like the Seattle Fault which provides its own threat of producing a 7.5 earthquake directly under Seattle, and many live in the virtual shadow of active volcanic mountains, such as Mount Rainier, with little thought of what to do if the volcano erupts, which will cause its own earthquakes along with volcanic ash, lava flows and avalanches of intensely hot rock and volcanic gases…

The tremendous opportunity for contractors is clear.

Contractors should immediately begin outreach to city, state and local agencies, especially in Washington and Oregon, to educate them on the necessity for services, products and systems designed to mitigate risk from natural disasters. The opportunity help these agencies ensure the public is warned and can reach safety, minimize damage to personal and public property and support essential emergency services needed during and after an earthquake -- or any disaster -- is now. We predict that due to the viral nature of articles like the one from the New Yorker, an uptick in contracting opportunities may indeed occur soon. Onvia recommends vendors keep a close eye on upcoming federal funding, upcoming state & local projects, expiring contracts and agency fiscal budgets & capital improvement plans. Staying alert to upcoming opportunities will give contractors and subcontractors a chance to win more government business and do their part in making a (potentially historic) difference.