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What Would You Do With A Few Seconds Warning Of An Earthquake?

A user of a ShakeAlert warning receives a message like this on the screen of his computer.

The new federal budget sent to the president's desk over the weekend includes $5 million for earthquake early warning along the West Coast. With this funding, an alert system should begin to roll out regionally next year.

The proposed early warning system can't predict earthquakes. It's designed to give a heads up about strong shaking coming from a distance. It works because electronic signals can travel faster than rumbling over the surface.

Depending on how close you are to the epicenter, U.S. Geological Service geophysicist Doug Given said you could get an alert 10 or 20 seconds -- or even a minute -- in advance.

"If you're at home, you want to drop, cover and hold on to protect yourself from falling objects,” he said. “If you're driving, of course you want to slow down and stop. If you're at work, you may have some kind of a hazardous situation that you could get away from."

Given said computer-controlled guidance systems could also be programmed to automatically respond to an earthquake alert. Examples he offered include, "Slowing or stopping a train, stopping a factory process or possibly even diverting aircraft coming in for landing at an airport."

John Vidale, the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, said his group plans to start sending warnings on a trial basis to a small number of companies and agencies beginning this February. Vidale said it will take much more money than Congress allocated for 2015 to build an earthquake warning system geared to the general public.

"It's a big help," said Vidale of the $5 million appropriation in the federal budget passed on Saturday night. "But it's only a third of what we need long range to run the system."

Given estimated it would take about $38 million to fully build out the seismic monitoring, software and alerting systems along the entire West Coast. He said USGS has asked for $16 million annually for operations and maintenance.

Vidale said his best guess is that it would take "perhaps a year or two" after full funding is received for the warning network to be ready for use by the general public.

The collaborating scientists at state universities along the West Coast -- including the University of Washington and University of Oregon -- and USGS envision "ShakeAlert" warnings going out on multiple platforms simultaneously. Smartphone owners might experience the same screeching tones now used when severe weather threatens or an Amber Alert goes out. Computer users might see a pop up. TV viewers could see a scroll on the bottom of their screens.

In some respects the U.S. is playing catch up in this department. Vulnerable regions of Japan, Mexico, Taiwan and Turkey already have operational systems for earthquake early warning.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.