Skip to main Content
Nation/World

Cellphone earthquake alerts debut in Washington state, completing West Coast network

A ShakeAlert seismic monitoring station. (Tribune News Service)

SEATTLE — One of the most terrifying things about earthquakes is the way they strike without warning. That’s going to change just a tiny bit in Washington beginning Tuesday.

For the first time, residents will be able to get alerts on their cellphones seconds before the ground under their feet starts shaking — enough time, hopefully, to get to a safe spot and avoid injury.

Californians have been tied in to the earthquake early warning network called ShakeAlert since late 2019 and have already received advance notifications of several small-to-moderate quakes. The system went live in Oregon two months ago. Washington’s addition completes the rollout of a technology inspired by networks in Japan and Mexico and developed over the past 15 years by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Washington, Caltech and other institutions.

“This is a key milestone,” said Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the UW. “Giving people just a little more time to take cover and protect themselves and their families can make all the difference.”

The backbone of the system is a dense network of more than 1,150 seismometers able to rapidly pinpoint earthquakes anywhere along the West Coast. Much of the work over the past several years has focused on upgrading seismic stations and adding new ones, with the number in Washington and Oregon alone more than doubling since the project started.

The instruments closest to the spot where a fault ruptures will detect the initial, fast-moving seismic waves, then transmit electronic signals that can reach people in distant towns and cities before the slower, more damaging seismic waves arrive.

This diagram shows how the early warning system ShakeAlert would inform people of a coming earthquake. (Tribune News Service)

How much warning people will get depends on how far they are from the epicenter. For quakes that originate very close to your location, the system won’t be much help. But for Washington’s biggest seismic threat — a megaquake on the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone — Seattle, Tacoma and other cities on Puget Sound could get nearly a minute’s notice before the ground begins to heave.

At least initially, though, some Washingtonians will be at a disadvantage in how quickly the messages reach them, due largely to the state’s failure to develop or support the type of phone apps available in other states.

The U.S. Geological Survey has invested more than $130 million in ShakeAlert, including for research, seismic stations, computer software and the telemetry that zaps out signals at lightning speed. But the agency left it up to states and the private sector to tackle the technological feat of pushing out alerts to millions of people within split-seconds.

“That’s not our area of expertise,” said Doug Given, USGS earthquake early warning coordinator. “We’ve struggled to get the budget we have just to build the capacity.”

In California, public alerts are provided primarily via two apps, one developed commercially and one built by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and partially funded by the state Office of Emergency Services. They’re designed to deliver warnings with minimal delay, and both groups widened their coverage area to include Oregon when ShakeAlert was activated there in March.

A mobile phone customer looks at an earthquake warning application on an iPhone in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Washington’s Emergency Management Division asked them to expand into Washington, but the answer was ‘no,” said Maximilian Dixon, the state’s geological hazards supervisor.

Representatives from MyShake, the UC Berkeley app, did not respond to requests for comment. Josh Bashioum, founder and CEO of Early Warning Labs, which developed the QuakeAlertUSA app, said they were willing, but neither the state nor any corporate sponsor offered to offset the cost. Early Warning Labs expanded their app into Oregon hoping funding would follow, but it hasn’t, he added.

“We’re a private company, and we provide these alerts for free,” Bashioum said. “But it’s really expensive to run something like this.” The company’s for-profit arm works with businesses to integrate earthquake early warning into their operations.

Bashioum estimates it would cost about $300,000 a year to cover Washington.

The state has a long history of ignoring seismic risk and underfunding emergency management and preparedness, and earthquake early warning has been no exception. California contributed nearly $60 million to ShakeAlert for research, seismometer installation, and other infrastructure. Oregon chipped in $8.5 million. Washington’s Legislature allocated $1.2 million, mostly for seismic stations, with nothing to cover the cost of a notification system.

Instead, the Emergency Management Division has been working with a nonprofit to develop an emergency preparedness app set to launch in June. ShakeAlert was supposed to be part of the package, but it proved too challenging for the all-volunteer team, Dixon said.

“We didn’t have enough funding or folks with the right expertise.”

That leaves Washington residents with two main routes to access earthquake alerts.

Those with Android phones are in the best position, because Google integrated ShakeAlert into its operating systems for near-instantaneous delivery and a graphic display that urges users to take cover.

Everyone one else will be relying on the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system used to push out Amber Alerts, flood warnings and urgent messages from the president.

The good thing about the system is that it reaches all types of cellphones and carriers, Tobin said. The downside is that it wasn’t built for speed or situations where seconds matter.

A three-county test in February found it took as much as 20 to 30 seconds for alerts via WEA to reach many users, said Bill Steele, outreach director for the Pacific Northwest Seismology Network. “Even a 10-second delay is not good for earthquake early warning,” he said.

For something like the 2001 Nisqually earthquake near Olympia — the state’s most common type of big quake — ShakeAlert should theoretically be able to provide about eight to 12 seconds’ warning in Seattle and the north Puget Sound area. With WEA’s potential lag time, alerts might not reach people until the ground is already in motion, Steele said.

Late alerts can still be valuable, helping cut through confusion and confirm a quake is actually underway, he added. “That’s useful information, but it’s not earthquake early warning.”

Fortunately, damaging earthquakes don’t happen very often in Washington, and Tobin said he expects the state’s notification gap to be plugged in the near future by app developers.

Even better would be for all cellphone companies to follow Google’s lead and build earthquake alerts into their systems, he added. The USGS has discussed the idea with Apple but without resolution, Given said.

Public notifications are the latest addition to ShakeAlert’s repertoire, but the system is already being used across a wide range of industries and government operations to warn staff and directly control machinery. The San Francisco area’s BART trains, for example, are wired to slow down and stop when they receive notice of impending ground shaking, just like Japan’s high-speed bullet trains.

Using ShakeAlert to prevent or minimize damage to infrastructure has enormous potential, Dixon said. “You can save lives, you can protect a lot of property, you can lessen the impacts and speed up recovery times.”

The idea is just beginning to catch on in Washington, with water utilities leading the way, said Dan Ervin, co-founder of Woodinville-based Varius. The small firm is licensed by the USGS to provide hardware and software that connects ShakeAlert directly to control systems with no app required and none of the delays involved in wireless emergency alerts. Valves can be automatically closed to prevent tanks and reservoirs from draining, pumps can be shut down to avoid damage and gas lines to boilers can be switched off — all without any human involvement.

The city of Anacortes tied the alerts into its communications systems, so workers in underground vaults or trenches will have time to scramble out of harm’s way. Seattle is launching a pilot project to use the alerts to recall elevators to the ground floor of the 62-story Seattle Municipal Tower so no one will be trapped during a quake. Other cities plan to automatically open fire station doors before ground shaking starts and they might get jammed shut.

In Snohomish County, the Stanwood-Camano School District set up a direct link to its PA system.

“It’s a foghorn sound, then it says: ‘earthquake imminent. Duck, cover and hold on’ and then it blasts a couple of tones,” said Liz Jamieson, capital projects director for the district.

David Applegate, acting director of the USGS, anticipates an explosion of applications, including some even the experts haven’t imagined. “Making this signal available and then being able to unleash the creativity of both the public and private sector ... is what’s important,” he said.

USGS and other scientists are also continuing to fine-tune the network and hope to add more than 500 additional seismic stations over the next few years — including 100 more in the Pacific Northwest — to speed earthquake detection and improve warning times.

“We’re confident we have the capability now to quickly detect significant earthquakes around the most populated regions of Washington,” Tobin said. “Now we just need to fill in the less populated parts of the state.”

Sponsored