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Washington residents will receive phone alerts when earthquakes strike

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Washington will soon have an earthquake warning system that alerts residents before shaking.

ShakeAlert could give residents and state agencies “critical” seconds to prepare for an upcoming earthquake. Starting in May, Washington will roll out the system, which will alert residents and automatically equip critical infrastructure for the upcoming shake. The Oregon system will be available in March, and the California system has been in operation since 2019.

“Those crucial few seconds could mean the difference between taking a week to recover and six months to recovering,” said Robert de Groot, a USGS scientist.

De Groot said the USGS has been working on this system since 2006, starting with looking at how information about current earthquakes can be quickly transferred from the field. It has evolved into an advanced algorithm that creates a packet of data to deliver alerts to residents and power computer systems to set up critical infrastructure.

Seismographs deployed across the West Coast were the first to detect earthquake waves. The United States Geological Survey, in partnership with universities, has 1,132 seismic systems in California, Oregon and Washington. Ultimately, 1,700 will be distributed across the three states. Currently, there are no plans to expand the system outside the three states, de Groot said.

Once the screens capture the waves, the sensors transfer the estimated location, volume, and vibration to the ShakeAlert processing center. If you exceed a certain size limit, a ShakeAlert message will be issued to the delivery partner who then sends the alert to residents. Gabriel Lotto, ShakeAlert’s co-facilitator of the Pacific Northwest Earthquakes Network, said the public will only get alerts on earthquakes of magnitude 4.5 or higher. Part of the University of Washington and University of Oregon, the network operates earthquake monitoring devices in Oregon and Washington.

De Groot said the alerts would be transmitted to residents within seconds of the first wave. Based on tests conducted in California, the average time between the onset of an earthquake and the moment the phone wakes was 8 seconds.

“That’s pretty quick when you think about everything that should happen between them,” de Groot said.

This alert will likely come a few seconds before the initial vibration – unless someone is too close to the screen capturing the first wave. If someone is close to the first sensor, Lotto said, the ground may vibrate at the same time they receive an alert.

Not every alert will contain information about the magnitude of an earthquake, so if they do receive an alert, residents should always plan, cover, and have a hold of it.

When the program moves to the entire state in May, users who have emergency alerts, such as AMBER alerts, enabled on their phones will have them. For iPhone, check your settings to make sure you receive emergency alerts. Maximilian Dickson, geological hazards supervisor in the Washington Department of Emergency Management, said Android users are automatically selected.

Although the eastern side of the state is not prone to large earthquakes, Dickson said everyone in the state should set these emergency alerts. Anyone traveling to West Side, Oregon, or California can take advantage of alerts in the event of an earthquake.

Companies, schools, and government agencies have partnered with ShakeAlert to create automated systems. For example, once an earthquake is detected, a computer system can automatically slow trains, shut off water supply valves and announce an alarm in the school’s PA system.

These partner companies and agencies can decide how large to receive an alert and when automated precautions should be taken in place.

Prior to its statewide rollout, Washington will test it at 11 a.m. on Feb.25 in King, Pierce and Thurston Counties. To participate in the test, residents of the area, or those traveling to and from the area, need to sign up. To do this, visit mil.wa.gov/alerts to see how to make sure you are included. The signup process differs for Apple and Android users.

In the continental United States, Washington is one of the states most vulnerable to earthquakes. Since 1870, there have been 15 major earthquakes in the state, according to the Natural Resources Administration. Most of the populated areas of the state have a 40% to 80% chance of experiencing an earthquake in the next 50 years, although the western side faces more threat.

The Pacific Northwest is also facing what could be a catastrophic 8 or 9 magnitude earthquake from the Cascadia subduction zone, although when this will happen is unknown. The final estrangement occurred more than 300 years ago.

Although many people are concerned about the “big earthquake,” Lotto said smaller earthquakes still occur in the state, and they could cause more damage.

De Groot said that while it was ready to post, the alert system was still in place. Alerts are still being tested, and about 30% of seismic monitoring stations are still being built. The goal is to complete it by 2025.

However, this technology could give residents seconds to prepare, which “means more than you think,” Lotto said. Most of the time when people are injured in earthquakes, Lotto said, it is because objects or walls fall. He said those early seconds might be enough to prepare.

“Right now, if there is an earthquake, the only sign you have is vibration,” de Groot said.

It’s just another tool, de Groot said. Everyone should still have a disaster bag, participate in tremor drills and prepare to drop, cover and carry on when an earthquake strikes.

Laurel Demkovich’s report for The Spokesman-Review was funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story may be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this topic, please contact the managing editor of our newspaper

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