Earthquake warning system to be tested in San Diego County

SAN DIEGO -- On Thursday, you may receive an earthquake alert, but don't panic! It is only a test --  but an important one that could help save lives.

Seconds count in an earthquake, which is why the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, the US Geological Survey and the Governor’s Office Of Emergency Services working together to test a system they call Shake Alert. Much like Amber Alerts, Shake Alerts will notify the public when a quake of magnitude 5.0 or more is about to strike.

The Shake Alert system is designed to give an early warning to surrounding communities when a quake is detected. Seismic sensors have been installed across the county and around the state, and when they record any seismic activity at or above magnitude 5.0, a Shake Alert will be sent out to mobile phones in the area immediately.

“You’re not going to get it for a [magnitude] 2.0 earthquake that nobody felt. This would be for a larger, damage-causing or potentially damage-causing earthquake,” said Rachel Sierer Wooden of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The test will evaluate whether the warning system could save lives by prompting people to seek cover or find a safer place to ride out the quake.

“Time is the basic currency of a Shake Alert,” said Dr. Robert De Groot of the US Geological Survey.

Eventually, the Shake Alert system could be used to trigger lifesaving actions, such as stopping the trolley and other transit systems or shutting off water or gas lines.

“These signals are going to be fed into automated systems to slow down trains, open firehouse doors, close water valves, and those systems can react very quickly,” said De Groot.

Most mobile phones will receive the alert, but if you’re unsure if your phone number is registered, you can sign up for alerts at ReadySanDiego.org.

“This is a great opportunity for people to think about 'What would I do if this was a real earthquake?' and look around their office or their home. 'Where would I duck, cover and hold on? What around me would fall during an earthquake?'” said Holly Porter, director  of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services.

Shake Alert is only in the testing phase. A test alert will go out in San Diego County on  Thursday at about 11 a.m. Again, it will only be a test.

State officials have not released a timeline for the system to roll out, but following more tests, the warning system could go live along the California coast as soon as next year.

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