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How an earthquake alert app could eventually give the West Coast vital warning

West Coast residents go about life knowing seismic threats are lurking, but there's a lot that people can do before an earthquake hits if they have even a few seconds of warning. A system called "ShakeAlert" picks up seismic information streaming in from sensors, and there's a big push this year to distribute the alerts more widely. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from Seattle.

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  • William Brangham:

    But first, on a week when a series of powerful earthquakes in Indonesia killed more than 100 and left thousands homeless, special correspondent Cat Wise has this update on efforts here in the U.S. to establish an earthquake early warning system for earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest.

    That's where Cat lives and works, and she first reported on the system four years ago. It's part of our weekly series on science, medicine and technology, the Leading Edge.

  • Cat Wise:

    We West Coasters go about daily life knowing there are seismic threats lurking below us that could hit at any moment. There's not much we can do about that.

    But when the next big one hits, if we had even a few seconds of warning, there's a lot we could do, get students under desks, stop before bridges, halt surgeries, head to higher ground, and put down dangerous objects.

    In the midst of happy crowds at the base of Seattle's Space Needle, a small, nondescript building is part of a big effort to provide those precious seconds of warning.

    Doug Gibbons is a field engineer with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. On a recent day, he was checking on the highly sensitive equipment housed here which measures vibrations in the earth.

  • Doug Gibbons:

    These instruments can feel motion that is far smaller than what people can feel. I'm about 10 feet away, and even just a good stomp on the ground is enough for that sensor to record.

  • Cat Wise:

    The space needle sensor is just one of about 850 throughout Washington, Oregon and California sending real-time seismic data into an early warning system called ShakeAlert.

    It's been developed over the past 12 years by the U.S. Geological Survey and several West Coast universities. Last year, the Northwest sensors became fully integrated with California's network. Information streaming in from those sensors is processed at three ShakeAlert data centers, including this one on the University of Washington campus.

    Within just seconds, complex algorithms determine where an earthquake occurred, shaking intensity and magnitude. The system picks up small seismic events multiple times a day, but if a more significant earthquake is detected, an alert is automatically generated.

    Currently, those alerts are going out to several dozen authorized pilot users throughout the West Coast, including the Bay Area rapid transit system and a fire station in Universal City.

    The speed of the technology is critical, but a unique feature of earthquakes is what makes the alerts possible. There are two waves of energy emitted deep underground. P waves are fast, but weak. They cause the initial mild shaking seen in blue in this animation.

    S waves are slower, but generate the strongest shaking, seen in yellow and red. The sensors detect the initial P wave, giving those further away more time to react.

  • Bill Steele:

    So, we're going to see is an earthquake that initiates in the Cascadia subduction zone near the Olympic Peninsula.

  • Cat Wise:

    Bill Steele, who directs communication and outreach for the Northwest Network, showed me a simulation of an alert for Olympia, Washington, where I grew up.

  • Bill Steele:

    So here's the P wave and here's the S wave radiating from that earthquake, and here's your house in Olympia. And you can see there's still 30 seconds' time before that earthquake wave is going to arrive.

    That's a lot of time to get into cover and take preventative action.

  • Cat Wise:

    How much of a heads-up one gets depends on proximity to the epicenter. There may be no warning or more than a minute.

    In 2014, after a 6.0 earthquake hit Napa, the Bay Area had about five seconds of warning, and, earlier this yea, L.A. had a bit more time following a 5.3 near the Channel Islands.

    Still, the system is far from complete. More sensors are needed, especially in the Northwest. And despite Congress' $23 million appropriation earlier this year, ShakeAlert is underfunded. The USGS and its collaborators recently estimated it will cost nearly $60 million to fully build out and $38 million each year to maintain.

    That's more than double previous yearly estimates, though some of those costs may be shared with public and private partners.

  • Bill Steele:

    That's a tiny, tiny percentage of the annualized losses from earthquakes. We believe we can prevent half the injuries. We can reduce losses. We think it's a great, cost-effective measure.

  • Cat Wise:

    So far, the alerts have not been accessible to the general public. But there's been a big push this year to distribute them more widely, especially to schools, hospitals, and first-responders.

  • Maximilian Dixon:

    We still have a long way to go to educate people.

  • Cat Wise:

    Maximilian Dixon is earthquake program manager for Washington State's Emergency Management Division. He says he's eager for everyone to have access, but he wants to be very careful about the implementation.

  • Maximilian Dixon:

    When you have an unreinforced masonry building, just like this one…

  • Cat Wise:

    Like this one.

  • Maximilian Dixon:

    … what we don't want people to do is get the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning, and then to run outside of a building, and then have the bricks from this facade collapse on them and either injuring them or killing them.

    We want them to drop, cover and hold on in place in the building and ride out the shaking, so that they are as safe as they can be.

  • Cat Wise:

    But even, if people are safe, there's a lot of infrastructure that needs protecting too. The Northeast Sammamish Water and Sewer District near Seattle recently became the first utility in the state to pilot an automated shutdown system connected to ShakeAlert.

    The warnings come in via the Internet to a new piece of embedded hardware designed by local engineering firm, RH2. Standing over a half-million gallon tank of clean water she doesn't want to drain during an earthquake, utility general manager Laura Keough explained what happens next.

  • Laura Keough:

    We have received the signal. We're going to shut down our pumps. You can hear the pumps shut down already, preventing the water from leaving this tank.

  • Cat Wise:

    Also connected, workers at the utility, who now practice drills to take protective actions.

  • Man:

    Hey, Brian, earthquake. Vacate the space. Earthquake.

  • Cat Wise:

    While the Pacific Northwest has made progress implementing ShakeAlert, the region lags behind California, where there are big expectations for a public rollout.

  • Eric Garcetti:

    By the end of 2018, we will deploy an earthquake early warning system to every corner of this city.

  • Cat Wise:

    L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has made earthquake warnings a priority. The city is developing an alert app with AT&T, which will be tested by 48,000 city employees. But there is at least one privately developed app already out there.

  • Alissa Walker:

    The biggest impulse, I will say, is, when I do see the alerts come through, is to get on Twitter.

  • Cat Wise:

    L.A. journalist and mom Alissa Walker is one of a small group of beta testers for an app called Quake Alert.

  • Alissa Walker:

    But I have gotten a few where it said, don't expect any shaking, and I did feel some weak shaking. So it still — the app doesn't quite know each time what you're actually going to feel. But the fact that I'm getting the alerts and I'm able to have at least a few seconds to figure out what to do makes a big difference.

  • Cat Wise:

    Entrepreneur Josh Bashioum partnered with the USGS to create the app and automated hardware.

    When triggered, this device opens elevator doors and alerts residents over an intercom in a Marina del Rey high-rise condo. Bashioum is making money on the hardware, but he says the app will be free when it's launched, and there are more than 100,000 now on a waitlist.

  • Josh Bashioum:

    The mobile application can support millions of people. Really, the bottleneck is the push notifications. So, we have challenges in relation to sending out, you know, a million push notifications for residents in Los Angeles.

  • Cat Wise:

    But what about an emergency notification, like an Amber Alert, used when a child is missing?

    USGS' Bob deGroot, who works with the ShakeAlert technical teams, gets asked that a lot.

  • Bob Degroot:

    The current Amber Alert system is great, but it's not built for speed. Currently it takes somewhere between three to seven seconds to get those messages ingested and moving through the system. And FEMA has actually talked to us about shortening the time.

    Then, on the other end, the cell phone carriers also have significant time delays associated with their delivery. We're working with the cell phone industry now — they have been very receptive to this — to help us get those times down.

  • Cat Wise:

    The general public may start to receive earthquake warnings in some areas later this year, but ShakeAlert officials say there won't be a countdown and the message will be fairly simple, drop, cover, and hold on.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Seattle.

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