A Bothell engineering firm is the first Washington company to sign up for an earthquake early-warning system, with the goal of wiring water-tank valves to close before the ground shakes.
Dan Ervin knew this day would come. He just didn’t think it would be so soon.
“I never thought I would actually see this in my career,” said Ervin, chairman of the board of a Bothell engineering firm that’s the first company in Washington to begin using earthquake early warning.
The breakthrough came last week, when the prototype ShakeAlert system in California was fully extended to include Washington and Oregon.
That means all three states are now operating with the same technology, said Doug Given, project coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey. And while the system isn’t yet ready for public use, organizations like Ervin’s can start figuring out to what to do with a few seconds or minutes of warning before the ground starts shaking.
For Ervin, whose company RH2 Engineering designs municipal water and sewage plants, the answer is clear: Close valves.
When water mains break in earthquakes, the water in storage tanks can drain away at a time when it’s most needed, he explained. RH2, which designed water systems in Renton and Kirkland, already installs special tank valves that can be closed remotely and are designed to shut automatically when the ground shakes.
“But there’s no guarantee you can get the valve fully closed before the shaking causes damage,” Ervin said. “The advantage of earthquake early warning is that it gives us forewarning that the shaking will occur, and we can be sure the valve is fully closed by the time the shaking starts.”
The ShakeAlert system relies on a dense network of seismometers and the fact that the initial seismic waves from an earthquake travel quickly through the ground but don’t cause much damage. The first sensors to detect those waves can beam warnings to populated areas before the dangerous seismic waves arrive.
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For nearby earthquakes, the warning may be only seconds. But for a quake on the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone, the Puget Sound region could get as much as two or three minutes’ warning.
The technology is widely used in Japan, where people receive warnings on their cellphones and bullet trains are wired to come to a stop.
“We’re talking about literally saving lives here,” said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose district includes Tacoma and the Olympic Peninsula.
A surgeon performing an operation could put down her scalpel, while a longshoreman hauling containers could get to a safe spot, said Kilmer, who along with other members of Washington’s congressional delegation has strongly advocated for ShakeAlert.
But future funding is uncertain, with President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calling for a 15 percent cut for agencies like the USGS, Kilmer pointed out.
“I hope that once we can make the case for how these investments will pay off, they will understand the importance of maintaining support for this important program,” he said.
The USGS hopes to roll out a limited, public version of ShakeAlert next year, Given said.
But the agency estimates it will take $38 million more to add enough instruments for a highly reliable network. For example, several more sensors are needed around the Seattle Fault, said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
California recently allocated $10 million to strengthen its network. Oregon is spending $1 million for new instruments. Washington hasn’t earmarked any money for the project.
Organizations in California, from school districts to amusement parks, have already been testing the alerts, Given said. NBC Universal is programming fire-station doors at its studio lots and theme park to open automatically. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is exploring ways to quickly secure large telecommunications dishes.
In the Northwest, Boeing, Intel and many public agencies are all trying to figure out how they might use the warnings, Given said. Since the project is still a prototype, companies that want to participate must sign “pilot user” agreements with the USGS.
“We’re not quite ready to go full throttle with an operational mode,” Given said. “But we are pursuing these specific pilot applications to show the proof of concept and develop the technology.”
One of the top concerns is the possibility of false alarms.
That’s not an issue for the types of applications RH2 is interested in, Ervin said. A valve that’s needlessly closed can be quickly reopened with no harm done.
As the regional pioneer, the company already is working on software and hardware to process the warning signals and automatically close valves. They’ve developed a virtual water system to practice with.
The company also wants to shut down power to pump stations before a quake, to prevent electrical damage that could spark fires.
“For the last 30 years, we have been anticipating that someday this technology would be available,” Ervin said. “This is pretty exciting for us.”