Cell phone earthquake alerts tested in Oakland

A test of an early earthquake warning alert was successfully carried out Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. in Oakland.

The test, called a shake alert, was sent through the Wireless Emergency Alert system. It was coordinated by the California Office of Emergency Services and the U.S. Geological Survey. Roughly 40,000 people in a 60 block radius west of Lake Merritt were notified.

“It surprised me,” April Moore of Oakland said. “I was not expecting it at all.”

Ryan Arba, Program Manager for Cal OES Seismic Hazards, said cell phones in a test room started receiving the alert within 4 seconds of it being sent out. He said their agency has already received more than 700 responses from people who signed up to take a survey about the alert experience. 

“We’re going to go back and review these results and look at operationalizing this or some other method of public alerting within the year,” Arba said.

Cal OES said if these kinds of alerts went out during a real earthquake, people farther away from the epicenter could receive a few seconds or tens of seconds of notice that shaking is coming.

“If you’re right on top of where the earthquake starts you may not receive an alert, which is we continue to teach people that if you feel shaking to drop, cover and hold on,” Arba said.

He added that cell phones may not be the solution for everyone, so they’re looking at other ways to deliver alerts. Options include having people buy and install receivers in their homes or interrupting TV broadcasting, though that method may take too long to be effective. He said all of the possibilities are a work in progress.