Researchers testing earthquake alert system along the West Coast

SEATTLE -- A new version of an earthquake alert system will be tested in states along the West Coast. Washington and Oregon will implement an advanced prototype of the ShakeAlert early warning system currently used in California.

Researchers are designing the system to provide people with up to a two-minute warning before they feel an earthquake. ShakeAlert will notify them when a quake hits and give them at least a few seconds notice before they feel the shaking.

University of Washington professor and Pacific Northwest Seismic Network director John Vidale says they are now sharing the alert system with public safety officials to improve how they respond to earthquakes. For example, slowing down trains before an earthquake or automatically stopping an elevator and opening the doors at the nearest floor.

“We are about half way into building the system so it still needs a lot more sensors to perform very well,” Vidale said. “We are taking the step to allow people to setup programs to use the information. We are not allowing them to give it out to the public yet because the system is just not that well tested.”

Vidale said it could still be a couple of years before the system puts out public alerts. Ultimately, researchers would like to send earthquake alerts to cell phones.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates it will cost $38.3 million to complete the ShakeAlert system on the West Coast. Researchers believe it will take $16.1 million each year to operate and maintain.