ShakeAlert earthquake detection app still a year or two away in Washington

SEATTLE -- What if there was a way to get an early warning that an earthquake is coming? Well, that technology is here now and is currently going through testing along the West Coast, including here in Washington.

It’s called the ShakeAlert system. For some, the technology can’t come soon enough.

When you hear its initial alarm, it doesn’t necessarily sound pleasant. But it does get your attention. And it could even save your life.

“The shake alert system is online now, both in California and actually all the way up here in Oregon and Washington,” said Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington.

ShakeAlert started as an idea back in 2008. It is meant to give you from several seconds to up to a minute warning of an earthquake. But what was once an idea is very close to reality with hundreds of earthquake sensors placed all along the West Coast, transmitting information in real time.

“That includes new seismometers, and that includes telemetry, the ability to get the data back from areas that are gaps in our coverage,” said Tobin.

ShakeAlert even came to life during the recent 4.6-magnitude quake in western Washington.

“It was about ten seconds, for Seattle, that the S-wave was coming,” said Bill Steele of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

You may be asking, how you can get an early warning? Right now, ShakeAlert is only available for researchers and vetted public agencies.

For example, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle City Light and Harborview Medical Center have access to it. But developers continue to work on the kinks before it’s widely available to the public.

“We’re not trying to hide anything from the public. It’s just that the system is still under development. We’re looking at making sure that it doesn’t release false alerts, for example,” said Tobin.

Or not getting alerts at all -- like the ShakeAlert pilot app in Los Angeles County.

“The reason for that was that, the shaking in Los Angeles County, which is away from the epicenter, was not deemed to be large enough. In fact, it wasn’t deemed large enough to be damaging in LA, so it didn’t issue an alert for that,” said Tobin.

Soon after that, the USGS said they will recalibrate the app to make sure smaller quake alerts are sent out as well.

The other issue is making sure that you get that critical information fast enough with no latency or delays. Tobin says the USGS,  city, state emergency management, cell companies and corporations are all working into making that happen.

“I think within one to two years, perhaps even faster than that, we will be at a point where we can release an app that people can download for free,” said Tobin.

But here, there's work to be done still, including adding more seismic monitoring stations.

“We are improving our network. And that means we have a lot of stations that we’re putting out there. Right now, we’re putting out a hundred per year,” said Steele.

Hopefully a few precious seconds in warning will be enough to make life-saving decisions.

Many legislators are seeing the benefit of this program as well.  According to Tobin, the USGS has appropriated about $16 million for ShakeAlert development.

The bulk of the funding comes from the federal government, said Tobin. But for the first time, the state contributed a million dollars also to help enhance the network, he said.