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State EOC installs Earthquake Early Warning device

Our geologic hazards team next to the ShakeAlert device connected in the state Emergency Operations Center.

Washington Emergency Management Division just took a big step toward improving earthquake safety for our own agency by installing the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning system into the state Emergency Operations Center.

"We are really excited about this important step toward bringing earthquake early warning to the people of Washington," said Maximilian Dixon, hazards and outreach program supervisor for the Washington Emergency Management Division.

The state’s Alert & Warning Center had been a pilot user for an Earthquake Early Warning app, but now the system has been installed building wide and will give emergency managers a heads-up that an earthquake is about to hit. By testing the system, Emergency Management officials will capture lessons learned and share this information with emergency management agencies, schools and other users.

Dixon and others at the state agency have been working with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and state and university partners in Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia to create, test and improve this system and prepare it for public availability. Having this system installed in our facility will help us to test it, which is one of the final steps before full public alerting is released in 2021.

The state had hoped a public rollout would happen by October of 2020, but that no longer seems feasible because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How does ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) work? When an earthquake occurs, the very first energy waves, which are faster but don't cause much damage, are detected by seismic sensors all over the state. Within seconds, the system then determines which areas are most likely to receive strong shaking and damage from the earthquake, and sends out a ShakeAlert to those areas, warning them to expect shaking soon and take protective action. This provides seconds, to tens of seconds of warning before the damaging shaking arrives, which doesn’t sound like much but allows plenty of time to drop, cover, and hold on to protect yourself from injury.

ShakeAlert EEW is perfect for automatically alerting people via PA systems, which is what was installed at the state Emergency Operations Center. A similar system was installed last fall at Stanwood Elementary in Snohomish County. It can also be connected to systems that will "harden" themselves against shaking damage, which can be critical for recovery following an earthquake. For instance, several water and wastewater systems in Washington are already connected to ShakeAlert EEW, which will make water and wastewater systems more resilient.

The device in the state Emergency Operations Center.

There will be many more ways to use this technology around the state, which will save lives and limit damage to the economy/environment from an earthquake by preventing firehouse doors/elevators from being jammed shut by earthquake shaking, to slowing and stopping trains to prevent injuries and damage.

Earthquake Early Warning is already sending public alerts in California. Alerts are sent using the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system on phones (similar to Amber Alerts). It is also available through several different mobile apps. Washington is working with Oregon to create a free mobile app for the Pacific Northwest called 2WeeksReady.

"Our app 2WeeksReady will deliver ShakeAlerts, tsunami alerts and provide tools to help people get prepared for disasters. We want to make preparedness as easy as possible," Dixon said.

The 2WeeksReady App and the public rollout of ShakeAlert is expected to arrive in Washington in 2021.