Disaster prevention specialist highlights importance of early warning systems


The nation’s ability to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes is once again a hot-button topic after the devastation in Japan caused by a powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

Yukio Fujinawa, who once worked at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention in Japan, said Taiwanese authorities must work toward providing information as quickly as possible as time is needed to save lives, no matter how short it may be.

“The question should be what one can do when he or she only has two or three seconds,” Fujinawa said.

Using the undersea earthquake along the east coast of Japan as an example, Fujinawa said that Miyagi and other prefectures along the coast all had at least 15 seconds to react after the earthquake was first detected.

Sendai City, which was only 130km from the epicenter, had about 20 seconds, he said, while people in Tokyo had more than 40 seconds to seek safety.

Fujinawa and other researchers spent seven years developing the earthquake early warning (EEW) system, which initially received ¥2 billion (US$23.79 million) in funding from the Japanese government. The system also piqued the curiosity of the private sector, which invested billions more in developing EEW-related products and services, he said.

Whenever the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) detects an earthquake — usually for those above magnitude 5 — the system first transmits the information to multiple information processors before it is broadcast to the general public, Fujinawa said.

Thanks to the EEW system, Fujinawa said people in Japan could see the earthquake alert on the NHK television station or on their computers, adding that the entire system was automated and requires no manual data entry.

The information delivered to users includes the location of the epicenter, the magnitude and the time at which the earthquake struck.

For the March 11 quake, Fujinawa said the system transmitted the information to subscribers within 12 seconds after the first seismic wave was detected. The general public received the information over television and radio services within 15 seconds, he said.

The EEW system’s false-alarm rate has dropped from 10 percent in 2007 to about 1 percent now, he said.

Using statistics gathered following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Fujinawa said researchers have sought to determine whether the system could have helped reduce the number of casualties.

Residents in Mianyang City, about 93km from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, had about 29 seconds before they were hit by the secondary wave of the earthquake.

“Had residents used this 29-second window of opportunity, the number of people who perished could have been drastically reduced from 21,935 to 877,” Fujinawa said.

Lai Wen-chi (賴文基), deputy director of Disaster Prevention Research Center at National Cheng Kung University, said the experience in Japan underscored the urgent need for a disaster prevention industry.

“Taiwan has the ability to provide an earthquake warning within 10 seconds, which could potentially be one of the fastest in the world. However, that information is only shared among government agencies,” Lai said.

“Translating earthquake-related information into disaster prevention messages used by the public should not be the remit of the government alone,” he said.

Lai said people in Japan could see earthquake-related messages on the LED panels of vending machines and when shopping in department stores, they can follow an illuminated route on the ground to exit the building. The railways can safely come to halt when an earthquake has been detected.

All these services have been developed by the private sector, he said.

Lai emphasized the need to educate the public about how to properly use an emergency warning system. He said the Japanese government spent four months teaching the public how to use the EEW system.

However, Taiwan is stepping up its efforts to prevent disasters caused by earthquakes. Officials from National Communications Commission have met officials from the National Fire Agency and telecoms operators to discuss the possibility of distributing earthquake warning messages through mobile phones.

Lo Chin-hsien (羅金賢), deputy director of the commission’s technologies administration department, said the nation needed to overcome a few hurdles before the service could be viable.

Text messages on earthquakes can be received via two systems, Lo said.

The first is a regular text–messaging service, where telecoms operators can send about 2,000 text messages per minute, Lo said. It would take more than 10 minutes for the message to reach millions of people, which could be too late for them to take preventive action, he said.

Another method is cell broadcast messaging, which can deliver messages to multiple users in specified areas, Lo said, adding that this was the method used by Japan to send earthquake warning messages.

“Not only must there be a platform to integrate and process the earthquake information, but the users must also have mobile phones that can receive these messages,” Lo said.

As most third-generation mobile phones and smartphones are not equipped with the cell broadcast messaging function, the Japanese government in 2009 required Japanese manufacturers to produce mobile phones that can receive cell broadcast messages, he said.

“Should we decide to adopt the same policy, we need to set the specifications for the manufacturers to follow,” Lo said.

Kuo Kai-wen (郭鎧紋), director of the seismology center at the Central Weather Bureau, said that whether people can accurately respond to the earthquake warning messages required constant drills and education on disaster prevention.

“People would have no idea what to do even if they knew an earthquake was coming,” Kuo said. “The Japanese can tolerate occasional false alarms. Could people in Taiwan do as well?”

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