Los Angeles Leads the Nation by Approving Hardening Requirements for Cell Towers

by: Sean Maddox, Land Use, and Lynn Whitcher, Associate General Counsel

Lynn: I remember being woken up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday morning, January 17, 1994. Having been an Angelino for decades, I was used to earthquakes, but not like this. This was DIFFERENT. I was in a suburb of Los Angeles called Rolling Hills, located about 40 miles from the epicenter in Reseda. The rolling went on for 5 seconds, then 10, then 20 . . . In disbelief, I realized at some point that I was going to actually have to get out of bed for this one. It probably didn’t help that I was on a waterbed (hey, it was the 90’s – don’t judge). When it was over, no one called me. Not my mom, not my family or friends (it was 4:30 a.m.!). I didn’t get any messages on Facebook or Twitter. I didn’t check the news over the internet. I went back to sleep. It’s funny to think back on that now. If (when) we have the next big earthquake, my mobile would be blowing up (assuming there’s enough capacity). The Northridge Earthquake stripped away some of the city’s complacency regarding earthquakes. When I see the devastation caused by earthquakes in other parts of the world, it somehow feels more personal now. It could – it will – happen again in my lifetime.

Sean: Although growing up in Southern California has given me the experience of feeling quite a few earthquakes, the Northridge earthquake is still the first and only one I vividly remember, even more than 20 years later. My family was located some 60 miles away- far enough from serious danger, but close enough for a serious wakeup call the morning it shook. It was all we could talk about at school, as we waited in nervous anticipation of aftershocks or what else may come. When the aftershocks continued all day, including into that evening, my friends and I were certain Armageddon was upon us. While it turned out that the world would go on, the uncertainty of that day stays with me. I can only imagine the feeling of helplessness that would accompany a major earthquake if cell phone service went down today.

The California Department of Conservation reports that there are hundreds of earthquake faults in California. Approximately 200 are considered potentially hazardous. More than 70 percent of the state’s population resides within 30 miles of a fault where high ground shaking could occur in the next 50 years.

It’s no surprise, then, that Los Angeles, California, would become the first city in the country to approve seismic standards for new cell phone towers. The City will require free-standing tower new‑build facilities to be built to the same seismic standards that apply to public safety facilities. The hardening requirement of a 1.5 Importance Factor is anticipated to increase construction costs 10% to 20%. The requirements would not apply to rooftop sites or to any existing sites.

The industry should embrace this forward thinking change. While cell towers are designed to prevent collapse, they are not currently designed to ensure the towers continue to function in the event of an earthquake. We need to be prepared to serve the public in the event the inevitable “Big One” arrives and people are in their most critical hours of need. Internet and wireless communications have become too integral a part of our society and economy. In the event of any natural disaster, cell phone usage can be expected to spike as frantic calls to loved ones are placed and emergencies are reported. Internet usage will spike too as people research information and resources. Connectivity issues could create delays in emergency response times and disaster recovery efforts. Debris, downed bridges and other hazards resulting from an earthquake could make it difficult for repair crews to repair inoperative towers.

This is a bold, but necessary step. Let’s hope the back-up batteries and generators last too…

May 21, 2015
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