ShakeAlert: A Reply by Washington State Emergency Management

Here is a reply I got to my ShakeAlert blog post earlier in the week.

by Eric Holdeman / May 15, 2019

See my original blog post:  Washington State Baby Steps Toward Seismic Preparedness

Let's be clear — my beef is not with emergency managers, but with legislators who are unwilling to invest real money into disaster readiness until and unless someone has died due to their inaction, then and only then, their interest piques to show that they are doing something, once all the bodies are buried. This is true at all levels of government. Nationally, they allocate a pittance to a tsunami warning system, when compared to China and Japan. For their lack of investment in a "national" earthquake early warning system, we are behind even Mexico and Chile on this one. And, not to leave out Washington state legislators, a little money this year does not make up for total inaction in all the previous years. My favorite Steve Palmer quote, "This state will not do anything about seismic safety until we are dragging dead bodies out of buildings." And, last but not least, the city of Seattle is more interested in cheap rents and historical preservation than in the safety of people who work and live in unreinforced masonry buildings (URM). They seem to think that nothing will ever happen and that earthquakes always occur somewhere else. They will be out of office and feel blameless for their inaction when the buildings do pancake. 

Another quote I always stressed to my staff in the past was, "Promise less, deliver more." Don't start talking about a system being in place until, "It is in place and operational!" People don't hear the words "pilot" or "testing." All they hear is that there is a new system that will warn them instantaneously! And don't try to tell them post facto they they didn't hear the message right when you told them the status of the system!

Here is the reply I got from Chuck Wallace, one of the good guys trying to "make bricks without straw." I may be out of the loop, but "operational" is not a word I would use to describe the Washington state seismic warning system. Pilot, testing, slow methodical progress ... seems to be where we are. Google the straw reference above. 


Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Thank you very much for the blog post, Washington State Baby Steps Toward Seismic Preparedness on May 12th. Although, progress toward full implementation of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System in Washington state has appeared slow, there has been consistent advancement toward full deployment. Through the efforts of the Washington State Emergency Management Division (EMD), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup (CREW), the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), other regional partners and numerous initial pilot users of the ShakeAlert System, earthquake early warning for schools, businesses and industry are a reality and are working today.

The premise of the ShakeAlert System, is for the ground motion sensors to detect the occurrence of an earthquake, (detection of the initial P waves), send the information to servers in Washington and California, which in turn can send a message to a specific site/area, where particular protective actions can be initiated, all before the violent shaking begins, (arrival of the damaging S waves). All of this, happening within seconds.

For example:

  • In the case of water and sewer systems — The receipt of the earthquake alert message, would initiate automatic systems to shut off feed and distribution valves to prevent significant loss of water, should the pipes become damaged during the earthquake.
  • For elevators — A signal would send the elevator to the nearest floor and have the doors open to allow occupants to exit and take protective actions before the shaking occurs, instead of having to ride out the earthquake inside a dangling elevator car and slamming against the sides of the shaft.
  • In schools — The signal would activate the public address system in the school and school district, instructing students, teachers, staff and visitors to take protective ​actions, (Drop, Cover and Hold on), before the violent shaking occurs, reducing and possibly preventing falls and injury.
  • Rail systems — San Francisco has already tested the ShakeAlert System with their Bay Area Rapid Transit services, to automatically slow down the rail lines upon receipt of a warning signal, with great results.

All of these actions are based upon the Machine 2 Machine (M2M) communications you discussed in your May 12th blog.

Los Angeles and Oakland have recently tested cell phone apps and the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system to reach the general public via cell phone messaging with varying results. Between the server indicating an earthquake warning and the ability to send a notice via cell phone, there is still a significant latency in the system of more than a few seconds, and with some phones never receiving an alert.  Encouragingly, there are numerous companies and organizations working to reduce the latency time on apps, to send messages to personal cell phones.

ShakeAlert, Earthquake Early Warning is here to stay. New developments are continually being discovered and instituted. New earthquake detecting sensors are being added to the system each month, making it more and more robust, increasing confidence and system function. Planning, design and testing is ongoing throughout ShakeAlert, which in time, will bring the availability to notify everyone via cell phone.

An absolutely critical part of a successful ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning system that has not had much focus though is education, training and outreach. If people don’t know what the system is, how to get an alert, and what to do to protect themselves when they receive an alert, then the system won’t be successful. This is a huge undertaking that hasn’t had much funding or capacity support, which is why it is so important that WA EMD received funding for an Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator.

Thanks again,

Chuck Wallace

WA State ShakeAlert Early Earthquake Coordinator

(360) 280-8278

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