App will warn of earthquake before ground shakes

SEATTLE — An app developed by a California company is providing earthquake alerts before the ground starts shaking.

Early Warning Labs is using data from the United States Geological Survey to send alerts to a couple hundred cell phone users as part of a beta test of its QuakeAlert app.

Earthquake early warning works when sensors detect an initial seismic wave.

If a quake is centered far enough away, you could get seconds or even minutes of warning.

That's enough time to take cover.

"To get these alerts out, that's our number one priority. We want to save lives. That's why we're doing this," said Josh Bashioum, founder and CEO of Early Warning Labs.

The data comes from the ShakeAlert system, which is run by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Bashioum has 100,000 people on a wait list to receive alerts and hopes to have a public release of the free app by the end of the year.

An official with USGS says a decision on the extent of the initial public rollout is expected soon.

Officials developing the system want to make sure an education component is ready, so people know what to do when they get a warning.

Early Warning Labs is installing systems directly in buildings, like the Regatta Seaside condos in Marina del Rey, California.

Alerts are now wired to the emergency speakers telling residents to take cover.

Before the shaking begins, elevators open at the nearest floor and parking garage gates rise automatically.

"All our gates will open before the earthquake hits. No one will be trapped in the building," said Robert Sides, general manager of Regatta Seaside.

To keep fire trucks from getting trapped, Early Warning Labs put in a system to open garage doors at a fire station.

The installations work automatically. There's no need for someone to see a phone alert and figure out what to do.

"Realistically, it's going to be very difficult to get an earthquake early warning on your phone," Bashioum said.

That's because people aren't always near their phones.

Still, there's a lot of interest in the app.

Bashioum says Apple's newest IOS will allow iPhone users to set up alerts that push through do-not-disturb settings.

Unlike other kinds of alerts, earthquake warnings need to go out immediately to do any good.

Sending millions of simultaneous messages is a big technical challenge that government agencies and companies are still working out.

"If we can save one life, that's huge. That makes all this worth it," Bashioum said.

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