For parents in the Pacific Northwest, one constant fear is how safe their children will be at school if an earthquake strikes. Now, children at one school in the Stanwood-Camano School District will get warning ahead of time to take cover before the most intense shaking begins.
Stanwood Elementary School is the first in the state to be able to issue warnings over the loudspeaker before a large earthquake. The school has connected to the ShakeAlert early warning system, which is operated as a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and research universities on the West Coast, including the University of Washington.
ShakeAlert is a system that gathers data from seismometers that can detect the earliest seismic waves of an earthquake, triggering warnings before the more powerful shaking hits. Bill Steele, director of communications and outreach for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, said the amount of warning students will get depends on where the quake originates.
“If it’s an earthquake on the South Whidbey Island Fault, it may only be a couple seconds’ warning,” Steele said. “But if it’s an earthquake, say, on the Seattle Fault or the Cascadia Subduction Zone, you could have substantial warning” of 20 or more seconds, he said.
Students across the state will practice earthquake safety this Thursday as part of the Great Washington ShakeOut. Stanwood Elementary will demonstrate how it uses the public-address system to tell students to “drop, cover and hold on” after it receives a ShakeAlert.
“The main idea is to protect your head and get down, so you don’t get knocked over by the earthquake, and ride it through,” Steele said. “And then afterwards, teachers will decide whether they wish to do an orderly evacuation or not.”
At least eight other school districts are exploring connecting to the ShakeAlert system, Steele said. The earthquake warnings are not available to the general public yet. Steele says the aim is to have that ready by October next year.
Adding ShakeAlert to the school’s PA system is part of the Stanwood-Camano School District’s disaster mitigation and earthquake preparedness work, said Liz Jamieson, director of capital projects for the district. Installing the system at the school cost about $10,000, and the district aims to add the ability to issue ShakeAlert warnings district-wide, she said.