The Tall Buildings Initiative

Commission Grantee – Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER)

Tall Building Initiative – Insuring New Building Technologies Are Safe


Compare photos of the skylines of San Francisco or Los Angeles from the 1970s with photos today and you will notice that buildings are taller, a lot taller. Many of the newer tall buildings are mixed use, including residential units. We take for granted that these are safe in case of earthquake, but are they? The materials and construction techniques used today are new and we hope improved, but we are putting new stresses on the buildings as they rise and the land they are built upon.

The Seismic Safety Commission, together with other funders, has sponsored work on Tall Buildings by the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER), which has recently released some of its recommendations. Peer is a cooperative research center with researchers from over 20 universities and private sector firms working together to improve building safety and promote appropriate public policy.

In the early stages of the Tall Building Initiative, PEER conducted research into perceptions by key stakeholders (governments, owners, builders, etc.) and found the following:

  • “Stakeholders were surprised by, and not necessarily accepting of, current code performance expectations for normal buildings.
  • Stakeholders strongly advocate disclosure of risks and anticipated performance, including serviceability and fire risks.
  • Most believed that a higher standard should be required for tall buildings.”

Based on this input and its extensive background and experience, PEER developed a set of recommendations which are included in PEER Report No. 2017/06 titled: “Guidelines for Performance-Based Seismic Design of Tall Buildings V 2.03.” This new version of the PEER Guidelines addresses lessons learned since the earlier version, based on updates from “many projects and the conditions, knowledge, and state-of-practice that presently exist.” Not necessarily an easy read for the general public, this report contains valuable information for those responsible for building safety.


Key Findings from the “Back to Normal” Project


Commission Grantee Global Earthquake Model Foundation (GEM)

Key Learnings from “Back to Normal” Research

The Back to Normal research and model funded by the Commission and produced by GEM and UCLA was described in an earlier Post. Here we review some of the key findings, based on a study of the 2014 South Napa earthquake. The Back to Normal study looked at what factors influenced recovery from earthquake damage. GEM listed eight key variables that influence rapid and effective recovery: These variables are listed below in order of importance, with the level of damage being the most significant factor.

  1. Level (or amount) of building damage
    b. Homeownership
    c. Percentage of households that have a male householder
    d. Presence of health insurance coverage
    e. Employment status
    f. Percentage of households that have any type of available income
    g. Percentage of buildings constructed after 1950 (a result of updated building codes; consequently, these structures suffer less damage during an earthquake)
  2. Percentage of English-speaking households

The percentage of homes insured for earthquake was low in Napa and, therefore, not a factor in this scenario, but access to financial resources clearly impacts recovery.

Based on their findings, the GEM team created several recommendations, many of them aimed at future research and improving the accuracy and effectiveness of the modeling effort. But some were specifically targeted at how to improve the recovery effort and speed the return to normal. On page 12 of the 85-page report, they recommend the following:

  1. “Facilitate access to assistance for vulnerable groups of the population, such as residents that do not speak English.
  2. Conduct further investigations into the relationships between the variables that correlate most positively with recovery (e.g., homeownership and health insurance) to determine the underlying causes.
  3. Conduct more extensive research on cost-benefit analysis of retrofitting buildings because the buildings not seismically designed in the city of Napa sustained significantly more damage compared to stronger structures.
  4. Improve access to financial mechanisms, such as earthquake insurance, to residents exposed to high earthquake risk, as well as investigate and promote alternative post-earthquake resources, such as grants, which will support residents in the rebuilding process.”

Many people do not realize that the typical homeowner’s policy does not cover earthquake loss. The California Earthquake Authority (CEA) is a not-for-profit organization that provides residential earthquake insurance for Californians, and the report recommends more people take advantage of their programs and policies.


“Back to Normal” – Earthquake Recovery Modeling Tool


Commission Grantee Global Earthquake Model Foundation (GEM)

GEM Team Develops “Back to Normal” Earthquake Recovery Modeling Tool


The prediction of earthquakes remains an unrealized goal of the scientific community, but we now have a tool that will help civic leaders and others better plan for successful recovery efforts. To better understand some of the main factors that influence earthquake recovery, the Alfred E. Alquist Seismic Safety Commission supported work by the Global Earthquake Model Foundation (GEM) and UCLA to develop a software tool to help estimate how long it would take to recover from an earthquake and what socio-economic factors might influence recovery.

The output of this Commission supported work is “Back to Normal” and the full report can be found on the Commission’s website. Building on over $20 million in funding that has been used the develop the Open Quake software package and supporting datasets, Back to Normal used data from the 2014 M6 South Napa Earthquake and the City of Napa to create this real-world case study and report. It estimates how long it will take an affected area to recover from a similar earthquake and what socio-economic conditions impact the recovery time and trajectory.

While not all earthquakes are the same, this tool will help civic leaders plan and direct resources where most needed to help the community recover.



A Network for Multi-hazard Monitoring and Warning

Commission Grantee UCSD/SIO HPWREN

Leveraging a Network for Multi-hazard Monitoring and Warning


In 2000 the National Science Foundation funded the Supercomputer Center at UCSD to deploy HPWREN, the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network. This network provides network support for cameras and sensors in the field on a wireless system spanning San Diego County and beyond, enabling seismic, acoustic, weather, and fire monitoring via a mix of sensors and cameras. Video and weather from the network is available in near real time at and seismic data is available at The network currently covers most of San Diego County and much of Imperial County and has extensions into Riverside County. It has wireless backbone speeds up to 200+ megabits per second, fast enough for high-definition 4K video.

This mix of seismic, weather, and fire monitoring technologies mirrors that provided by the Seismology Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), ( and researchers from UNR and UCSD/SIO have partnered for years on improving technologies that can help save lives. In fact, the UNR system in Lake Tahoe and Nevada has been credited with the early detection of more than 300 fires in the region over the past two years.

These two teams have pioneered the use of robust radio networks for multi-hazard monitoring.  Leveraging the high fixed cost of the towers and radio equipment to support earthquake, fire, and other risks lowers the cost for each of the different warning systems and enables larger, and more resilient, systems to be deployed. Given the recent wildfires in California and our investment in separate seismic and fire warning systems, it is a good model to consider for the State.


High Tech Cameras Used for Early Fire Detection

Commission Grantee UCSD ALERT

Looking Out to Protect California’s Citizens


In November of 2017 the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and the Seismology Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), unveiled the new Alert SDG&E Cameras. These 15 high-definition cameras will improve public safety by livestreaming images from some of San Diego’s most fire-prone areas. This new system provides firefighters and the public with a virtual fire lookout tower equipped with real-time and on-demand time-lapse imagery up to 12 hours in the past to spot the first signs of fire ignition. Based on the UCSD/Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN), which also includes seismic monitoring for earthquake early warning and has been supported by the Commission, these new mountaintop cameras enable early detection of fires in some of the most remote locations in Southern California.

Alert SDG&E (originally named AlertSoCal but renamed after generous support from San Diego Gas and Electric.

was developed by SIO and UNR and expands Southern California’s state-of-the-art earthquake and weather monitoring system to better detect fires in real time before they spread. The HPWREN network currently includes more than 64 fixed mountaintop cameras positioned in 16 remote locations across San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial counties to support public safety operations. New Alert SDG&E 4K high-definition, pan-tilt-zoom cameras, built on a design by UNR, will augment the existing HPWREN cameras.

“This technology brings us one step closer to providing public safety officials with an integrated hazards network to revolutionize how we detect and fight wildfire and other natural hazards in the United States,” said SIO research geophysicist Frank Vernon, the lead researcher of the HPWREN network.

The Seismic Safety Commission Works to Reduce Earthquake Damage to Small Business


Commission Grantee – California Small Business Development Centers

Helping Small Business Prepare for Earthquakes


According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), there are more than 700,000 small businesses in California that employ almost 50% of the employees in the State. They are the primary drivers of exports from California (over 90%), thus critical to the people and the economy of California.

In order to improve awareness of disaster preparedness amongst the State’s small businesses, the California Seismic Safety Commission contracted with California’s Small Business Development Centers (CASBDC) network to assess and help improve disaster preparedness among California small businesses in the event of a natural disaster.

The Commission-funded effort had two parts:

  1. To conduct a survey of California small businesses and their disaster preparedness.
  2. To create of the California Small Business Disaster Resource Guide, which can be found here.

The Guide includes a disaster preparedness checklist, information on government disaster assistance, and details on how to prepare, respond to, and recover from a disaster.

The project found that the State’s small business owners are focused on keeping their businesses growing and thriving. Preparing for a disaster is not always a priority for small business owners, and less than half had business interruption insurance.

This and similar findings lead to the second part of the effort. To help rollout the resource guide, the Commission contracted with the CASBDC to host a series of educational workshops targeting small business owners in California. The purpose of the educational sessions is to provide businesses with information they need to be prepared for disruption caused by earthquakes and other natural disasters. These workshops assist small business owners plan for business continuity during and after earthquakes. Training workshops were conducted in 2017 across the State.

Earthquake Visualization Tools – V


Earthquake Visualization Tools – Earthquake Scenario Tools

We have written a lot about monitoring and mapping earthquakes that occur and the value of timely information. But what about earthquakes that have not happened yet? How do we illustrate what might happen and better understand the impacts of a major earthquake?  Working with researchers and drawing on data from more than 100 years, the US Geological Survey has prepared a series of scenarios that show the impacts of earthquakes of different magnitudes along different faults in California and elsewhere ( For each of the scenarios, they have produced a shake map, an interactive map, regional information maps, and even videos for some, as they did for the Great Shakeout scenario.

A bit unnerving? Yes.

Informative? Always.


Earthquake Visualization Tools – IV


Earthquake Visualization Tools – Modeling Tools

Although we live on the earth, we see very little of it below the surface. And understanding what is beneath our feet is essential to understanding and, perhaps, one day predicting earthquakes. Since we cannot directly see into the earth, we use different methods to probe it and gather data about its structure and movement. But the raw data are hard to interpret, so visualization and modeling tools have been created to help researchers and the interested public better understand the interior of our planet.

In recent years researchers have used ever-faster computers to enable 3D-visualizations that they can ‘walk around’ to explore. Many of these techniques have been developed for oil exploration to better enable firms to understand how and where oil deposits exist and how best to safely exploit them. But most tools are openly shared with research colleagues around the world. In November 2017 it was announced that a Chinese team of researchers received the prestigious Gordon Bell prize for simulating the devastating 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, China, using an open-source code developed by researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego and San Diego State University (SDSU) with support from the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC).

Earthquake Visualization tools hold the promise to open up new ways of seeing and understanding our planet and what makes it shake.

Earthquake Visualization Tools -III


Earthquake Visualization Tools – Earthquake Mapping

In the US earthquake data comes from the USGS (, which works closely with universities and other organizations worldwide to collect accurate seismic information and translate it into earthquake event data. Their Shakemap Website ( and Earthquake map site ( are great sources of information, and the earthquake map lets you click down to detailed information on an event.

But for portability it is hard to beat mobile devices, and mobile apps like Earthquake Alert, Earthquake, Earthquake from the Red Cross, and Quakefeed are all excellent sources of near real-time earthquake information. Most mobile apps will post a notification of earthquakes that meet your criteria, such as intensity or location. But be careful not to set the alert threshold too low, the National Earthquake Center identifies between 12,000-14,000 each year (

Earthquake Visualization Tools – II


Earthquake Visualization Tools – Earthquake Monitoring


Earthquakes occur virtually all of the time all around the world. While we routinely think of the Pacific coast and Alaska as US earthquake centers, earthquakes have occurred in New Hampshire, Kansas, Colorado, and Indiana, with major M>7 earthquakes in Montana, Missouri, South Carolina, and Idaho. Keeping track of these and many more around the world is done using accelerometers/seismometers and computer modeling tools. In the US, the US Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with academic and government agencies worldwide runs the Global Seismographic Network and makes the data available freely to private and public organizations.

These data are then made available in the form of web pages, pager notifications, and mobile phone applications. The USGS even has an earthquake notification service, which will email you or send a text alert with links to detailed Web resources for earthquakes occurring near you (