OLYMPIA — Washington residents with a cellphone in their pockets could have a short, but possibly critical warning before they feel the next big earthquake.
Earlier this month, Washington joined California and Oregon in using the U.S. Geological Survey's ShakeAlert system for earthquake early warning. The program, which has been in the works since 2006, picks up shaking from sensors built across the state and sends alerts to residents nearby seconds before the ground starts moving. Depending on where they're located in proximity to the epicenter, cellphones will receive a warning seconds or tens of seconds before the ground shakes.
Experts say those seconds could give people time to drop, cover and hold as well as for some automated systems to shutdown before pipes and other infrastructure might crack.
Having the system now operational in all three West Coast states is "a major milestone," USGS staff scientist Robert de Groot said.
The best part: most phones are automatically set up to receive the alerts. You don't even have to sign up.
Apple devices use the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, the same one that delivers AMBER alerts or tsunami alerts. To check to make sure an iPhone gets the alerts, go to notification settings, scroll down and turn on "emergency alerts" and "public safety alerts."
Android devices, on the other hand, use the phone's built-in software to deliver the alerts. To check if the setting is turned on, go to location settings, click on "advanced" and turn on "earthquake alerts."
For more information for checking both phone types, go to mil.wa.gov/alerts.
"We do want folks to check and make sure they have the alerts turned on," said Maximilian Dixon, hazards and outreach program supervisor at the Washington Emergency Management Division. "But that's it, you don't have to download an app."
Seismic monitors across the West Coast pick up the first waves of an earthquake. Washington currently has 238 stations, operated by the University of Washington's Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. Once the monitors pick up the wave, the sensors transmit the location, size and estimated shaking to a processing center. If the quake is above a certain magnitude threshold, an alert will be sent out to cellphones within seconds of the first wave. For Apple phones, that threshold is a 5-magnitude earthquake, and for Android, that threshold is a 4.5-magnitude earthquake.
In addition to the automatic alerts, residents in Oregon and California have the opportunity to download a separate app to receive alerts. Apps, as well as Android devices, can deliver alerts for lower magnitude earthquakes.
They also give more information in their notification, de Groot said. A Wireless Emergency Alert message, the system Apple relies on, often doesn't include the magnitude information or a countdown to when shaking might occur.
In Washington, however, those apps are currently not licensed. Dixon said the state reached out to the developers, who said they wanted funding from the state to operate here. That request took the department by surprise, Dixon said, and they weren't able to offer it with the limited funding they already have for the project.
Although it would be great for everyone to have an app they could also download, not everyone wants to go through the process of downloading one, said Gabriel Lotto, ShakeAlert engagement facilitator at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
A very small percentage of people in California have an early warning app as opposed to the automatic alerts set up in their phones, he added.
Offering an early warning app statewide will remain a conversation, Dixon said. If one ever launches, he said the state would want it to include tsunami warnings and information. Neither of the apps the state previously reached out to offered that, he said.
Although earthquakes are rare in Spokane, residents should still make sure they have the alerts turned on in their phone, officials said.
Many people travel or visit other parts of the state that do have a higher risk of earthquakes. For that reason, Dixon said you should make sure the alerts are on.
"You just never know where you're going to be," he said.
Moving forward, USGS and state partners will continue the build out of the seismic sensors with plans to build about 100 more sensors by 2025.
Most of the new ones will be in central and Eastern Washington, Lotto said.
Another piece of ShakeAlert is a partnership with local schools and utility companies to create automated systems. For example, once an earthquake is sensed, a computer system can automatically slow down trains, close valves of water supply and announce the alert in a school's PA system.
A few schools and utilities in Washington have started that partnership, Lotto said, but it's still in the very early stages.
The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network also will continue working on its algorithm for large magnitude quakes. As of now, officials are only confident in the system's ability to warn of earthquakes up to magnitude 8, particularly for areas further from the epicenter, de Groot said.
"No matter what, the shaking you feel is a signal to do something," de Groot said.
ShakeAlert is just "one tool in the toolbox," Dixon said.