Earthquake warning system begins operation

The U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Early Warning System director announced today that the preliminary phase of its rollout will begin this year in California, Oregon and Washington. 

It can give an advanced notice – a precious few seconds. But while the earthquake warning system is good enough to do wide scale warnings, it’s not good enough, yet, to fully implement.

The Earthquake Emergency Warning System, still only half built, uses sophisticated shake sensors and data analyzers to send out alerts for magnitude 4.5 or greater events to minimize false alerts or low magnitude panic. 

"You can send alerts out ahead of the seismic waves as the radiate out through the earth's crust," said USGS geophysicist Doug Given. 

That would provide a few seconds to tens of seconds warning. Initially, those alerts will go to critical organizations such as police, fire, education, utilities as well as news agencies of all kinds.

But, it is still very much a work in progress. 

"This is a very rapidly evolving project. There will be false alerts. There will be missed earthquakes, no matter how much money we pour into this," said geophysicist Given.

What most individual folks really want is personal notification. "When will I get it? How do I get it and what do I do with it? The end goal is for everybody to get this on their cell phone as quickly as possible," said Given.

It would come with a warning alert sound and a voice statement: "Earthquake. Earthquake. Expect shaking soon. Drop. Cover. Hold on. Protect yourself now."  But, says Given, "The problem is: it can't be done." 

Not yet, because current cell phone and emergency alert systems, such as weather or Amber Alerts, are simply way too slow. And, we are at least three to seven years away from being quick enough to do it.