Last Dec. 20, Milt Phegley was sitting at his desk in his home in Eureka, California, when his phone started buzzing.
“Emergency Alert. Earthquake Detected! Drop, Cover, Hold On. Protect Yourself,” his phone read.
A few seconds later, his house shook as a 6.2 magnitude earthquake rippled through Humboldt and Trinity counties.
Between the phone alert and the earthquake, the 70-year old former city planner shouted to his family members, who were able to safely brace for the impact.
“It took a split second to register, but I was able to yell out ‘Earthquake! Earthquake!’” Phegley told the Deseret News.
Phegley was one of thousands of Californians who got an alert that day, which marked the largest test so far for the U.S. Geological Survey’s relatively new ShakeAlert technology.
“It worked exactly as it should have,” said Robert de Groot, a ShakeAlert coordinator with the USGS.
“This gave us a really interesting opportunity to exercise the system, and to learn from what happened. This event was distinguished by the fact that we had a couple of years to let the system mature,” he said.
Now, the technology could be coming to Utah.
Would ShakeAlert work in Utah?
On Friday, state Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, joined Bill Keach, of the Utah Geological Survey, Kieth Koper, of the University of Utah’s Seismic Center, and Ari Bruening with Envision Utah, in a presentation to Utah lawmakers. Their goal is to get $150,000 to launch a study exploring the feasibility of an earthquake early warning system in Utah.
“We cannot predict earthquakes; we don’t know when they’re going to happen,” Koper said. “But this earthquake early warning system, this new technology is the best thing that’s out there.”
In March 2020, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit the Wasatch Front, shaking mobile homes off of their foundations, dislodging bricks on old buildings, and sending the Angel Moroni’s golden trumpet flying from its perch atop the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But it wasn’t the “Big One,” which is what scientists call the looming, 6-plus magnitude earthquake that could upend life along the Wasatch Front in the coming years. Bruening says there’s a 43% chance of a 6.75 magnitude or greater earthquake occurring sometime in the next 50 years.
If it happened today, Envision Utah’s forecast is bleak. The group says it could result in between 2,500 to 3,000 deaths, making it one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history. Short term economic losses to the state could be $33 billion. The four major aqueducts that bring water to much of the Wasatch Front could be offline for months. The long-term economic impact is incalculable, with a mass population exodus possible due to water and infrastructure issues.
On Thursday, the Utah Seismic Safety Committee approved a five-step plan, drafted in part by Envision Utah, which recommends the state take several steps for disaster resilience — reinforce the Wasatch Front’s major aqueducts, identify which Utah schools need to be improved, increase public awareness of unreinforced masonry buildings and ensure adequate building code enforcement for large public buildings.
The fifth recommendation is to study the earthquake early warning system.
Some form of an earthquake early warning system has been around for years — Japan first implemented a system in 2007, according to the LA Times, and in Mexico City a network of sirens alerts residents seconds before the ground starts to move.
In 2018, the ShakeAlert system was implemented in California, Oregon and Washington, and the USGS has been refining it since. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley developed an app, MyShake, which notifies the public even faster than the wireless emergency alert system. It was initially rolled out in California and Oregon, and on Thursday the app became available to residents in Washington.
“We’re still working on improving it,” de Groot said. “And that’s going to happen for a long time. We have a really sophisticated system in place to continue to improve it.”
Whether it will be as effective in Utah as it is along the West Coast will be determined in the feasibility study. Utah is in an extension zone, meaning the faults are pulling apart. That’s different from the strike-slip and subduction zones found in California, Oregon and Washington.
The feasibility study will also explore the various government agencies, utilities and private institutions that need to coordinate in order for a ShakeAlert system to work in Utah.
‘Something is is better than nothing’
It might sound complex, but the idea is fundamentally simple: When the ground starts to move, residents get an alert.
The complications come with the technological infrastructure needed to, within seconds, process an earthquake and notify millions of people, utilities and government institutions.
Sensors in the field detect the initial ground movement from an earthquake, passing that information to a processing center. With lightning speed, an estimated location, magnitude and shaking intensity are calculated, and the USGS issues a ShakeAlert message.
The message is then picked up by utilities, hospitals, schools and more. A message is also distributed by the federal emergency alert system, much like an Amber Alert. Google, TV and radio alerts are also likely.
Whether you get an alert before, during or after the earthquake is entirely dependent on the location. Someone standing directly above the epicenter will likely get an alert during or after.
The further you are from the epicenter, the more time it will take for the tremors to reach you, meaning you’ll have more of an advanced notice.
If you are far enough away, chances are the alert will come through a few seconds before the shaking starts. During California’s December earthquake, residents across Humboldt County had varying experiences.
Some told the Deseret News via Facebook that they received an alert five minutes after the earthquake — one man said he received it with enough time to walk outside with his dogs. Most said the alert came somewhere in between.
A few seconds doesn’t seem like much, but consider the room you’re in right now — it’s likely enough time to dive under a table. In Utah, knowing the “Big One” is mere seconds away could save lives, especially for those living in unreinforced masonry buildings.
And experts say the personal phone alerts are just one small piece of ShakeAlert’s potential. For major utilities, hospitals, public transportation and government institutions, 10 seconds could be a big enough window to stop a potential catastrophe.
“That’s enough time to turn off the natural gas. That’s enough to stop the TRAX trains and the FrontRunner trains and potentially prevent a lot of deaths and injuries,” Bruening said.
The automation was the first part of the system that was implemented on a widespread scale — now, the Los Angeles Metro System and Bay Area Rapid Transit System use ShakeAlert data to stop or slow their trains, and warn employees in administrative buildings and maintenance yards. Water municipalities in Oregon and Washington get updates to close valves. Hospitals along the West Coast use ShakeAlert to take protective measures.
De Groot says there is no real ceiling for where ShakeAlert can be implemented.
“We’re focusing on critical areas like transportation, utilities, health care, educational environments like schools, and we want emergency managers to use it as well,” he said, noting that the USGS is expanding its effort this year.
If an anecdotal public opinion poll conducted via Facebook on Friday means anything, those in California’s Humboldt County had nothing but good things to say about ShakeAlert. When asked if Utah should consider adopting it, Phegley, the Eureka resident, didn’t mince words.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I think at this point, the technology is not such that there’s going to be a lot of warning, but at least something is better than nothing.”