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14 Seconds Could Alert You To Major Northwest Earthquake

Early warnings for earthquakes already occur in Japan, and they’re being piloted in California. Now the University of Washington hopes to bring them to the Northwest.

Scientists with the university’s Pacific Northwest Seismic Network are meeting with local businesses and emergency managers. They want to help them utilize new early warning software to slow trains, halt factories or stop surgeries in the moments before a quake.

The computer warning buzzes in the familiar grating tones of the emergency alert system, before a voice states fairly calmly, “Earthquake. Earthquake. Moderate shaking expected in —” however many seconds, or in some cases minutes, you have to prepare yourself.

The amount of advance notice depends on the quake's size and your distance from it. If Seattle had had an early warning system for earthquakes in 2001, residents would have had about 14 seconds before they felt the Nisqually quake.

John Vidale is the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the UW. He said even if you have 30 seconds, you should fight the temptation to run outside. “In fact, a seismologist down the hall here almost got clocked by a piece of the building in the Nisqually earthquake.”

Vidale would stay at his desk. “I’d mainly just look around and make sure I was aware of what was coming in my direction. As opposed to being hit in the back of the head by that piece of lava up there on the bookshelf.”

When an earthquake starts, the initial waves can’t be felt by people. But they are captured by sensors all over the Northwest. The new software can now deliver these warnings to desktop computers within four seconds of detection.

Vidale is offering the software to emergency managers in government and business. But he said right now the system isn’t reliable enough for widespread use. “There are a number of problems if we make mistakes,” he said. “One problem is we undermine our credibility and future warnings aren’t taken as seriously.”

Another question has been liability for damage or injuries resulting from a false alarm. Barb Graff directs the Seattle Office of Emergency Management. Graff said concerns about liability shouldn’t hinder the use of the warnings.

“We talked with our City Attorney’s Office specifically about the notion of liability and they assured us that sharing better, more timely information with people — even if we don’t have it entirely right — is more advantageous than not sharing any kind of information,” Graff said.

She said now that the technology exists, everyone needs to figure out how to use the warnings. “When the scientists get the warning, they need to know who should they send that to, who propagates it, who sends it to other people in the community.”

Making the warning system more reliable will cost $16 million per year for the West Coast, Vidale said. He’s preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., and make the case for the funding with lawmakers.

His group is also distributing the software to local businesses like Boeing and Microsoft to start their own testing.

Gary Gordon is a senior manager with Boeing. He said he’s been impressed with the use of earthquake warnings in Japan and believes there could definitely be applications for the system at Boeing, to halt the use of overhead cranes or get people out of confined spaces before earthquakes hit. “These are all great candidates for this type of an early warning system,” he said.

Gordon said those warnings could be integrated so that they automatically halt the manufacturing process to save valuable seconds. “This would represent the first time we’ve broached the automatic shut-down process on a scale that we’re talking about.”

But Gordon said it’s too early to tell when these warnings might be in broad use. He expects this phase of beta testing by government and business to yield a more definitive timeline.

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