Earthquake early warning system still not functional in Washington

Some people in California heard an alert seconds before the Napa earthquake reached them.

The technology is part of a sophisticated earthquake early warning system, which still is not in place in Washington State.

"It's a system we're trying to make available to the general public and to corporations but something that we don't yet have the funding to fully build out," said John Vidale, a UW professor who is helping develop the system for USGS, called Shake Alert.

He says Congress isn't willing to spend the $17 million or so a year it takes to run the system.

Senator Patty Murray's office says it's among her priorities, but a bill to provide the money hasn't made it beyond committee.

Emergency managers hope the Napa quake will change that. They say Shake Alert could save lives, allowing people to get to a sturdy door frame, duck under a desk, or run outdoors moments before a building crumbles.

"What can people do with that time? Well just in a 10-15 second time-frame that's enough to put an emergency stop on some industrial equipment, you can slow an elevator, you can take a quake-safe action get somewhere secure," said Debbie Goetz, spokesperson for the Seattle Office of Emergency Management.

Private companies meanwhile are developing similar technology which they say is just as effective as what the USGS came up with, and they hope to do it cheaper. Seismic Warning Systems says it's preparing to make a big push to sell their system in Washington State.

USGS currently has an experimental Shake Alert system in place in Seattle, but according to Vidale it's "nowhere near ready to warn people."

He proposes rolling out the system to 10-20 agencies and groups which respond in emergencies before giving access to the general public.


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