MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Early Sunday morning, seconds before the ground started shaking in Northern California, an early warning system sent out an alert. First, a series of loud horn sounds, then a voice saying earthquake, earthquake, light shaking expected in three seconds - or it could be five seconds, maybe 10 or even a minute. That warning system called ShakeAlert is still in its early stages. Warnings like that one go out to just a handful of test users, including BART, the Bay area's rapid transit system, also the LA County Fire Department and Disneyland, among others. Geophysicist Doug Given is one of the scientists spearheading the project. He's the National Earthquake Early Warning coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.
DOUG GIVEN: Earthquake early warning is not earthquake prediction. It's just very rapid determination of the earthquake once it has begun. There are very sophisticated scientific algorithms to determine where the earthquake is and how big it is in less than a second, which is actually quite remarkable given that the earthquake has just begun and really hasn't fully developed.
BLOCK: And when you think forward imagining if you would want this disseminated broadly to everybody, how would people be getting this warning?
GIVEN: When we go public with the ShakeAlert system, you can expect to see it on your television, on radio, on your smartphone, possibly in dedicated systems within buildings or shopping malls. If you've ever gotten an AMBER Alert, that same system will be used to distribute earthquake early warning information to the public at large.
BLOCK: And if you're getting an early warning that says basically severe shaking coming in three seconds, how do you expect people to use that information in a way that makes them safer?
GIVEN: Well, we're going to have to do a lot of education and training to make sure the public understands the system and knows how to respond to it. But in just a few seconds, you can do what we've been telling you to do all along, and that's drop, cover and hold on. Often people just sort of look around, they don't know exactly what to do, or they feel embarrassed about getting under a table, particularly if they're, you know, with another group of people. So this would actually have the advantage of knowing for sure that this is going to be a big earthquake and perhaps your cellphone app will say, yeah, we're serious, this is it, really, get under your table now.
BLOCK: But beyond individual actions that I might take or you might take, you're also thinking about automated systems, big infrastructure systems. What kinds of things would this allow you to do or allow them to do?
GIVEN: So, for example, today, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, their Metro system, is wired into the system so that it will slow down and stop trains and prevent derailments. That was in fact one of the major reasons that early warning was devised in Japan - was to protect their bullet trains. Other systems like elevators would stop at the next floor and open the doors. Factory floors, refineries, pipelines, any automatic systems could be wired into the early warning system.
BLOCK: How far away would you say we are from having a system as extensive and robust and wired in as you would want to see?
GIVEN: Well, it's the goal of the USGS to build an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast - Washington, Oregon and California. And we're making positive steps in that direction, but we've got very limited resources to do it.
BLOCK: And the price tag would be what?
GIVEN: Well, we've got the estimate for a West Coast system, to actually build it out, at about $38 million for infrastructure improvements and telemetry and computer systems and testing and all that sort of thing. And then we estimate that it would be about $16 million a year to operate it every year.
BLOCK: OK. Doug Given, thanks so much.
GIVEN: All right, thank you.
BLOCK: Doug Given is the Earthquake Early Warning coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.