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ShakeAlert: Washington's earthquake early-warning system to go live May 4

The ShakeAlert system rapidly detects earthquakes that have already begun and then sends alerts to people's mobile phones to warn them before the shaking hits.

Editor's note: The above video previously aired on KING 5 in February 2021.

Washingtonians will soon be able to receive an alert on their phone if an earthquake starts near their location.

The ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning system will go live in Washington state on May 4, according to a statement from the Washington Emergency Management Division Monday. 

ShakeAlert, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, works by sending residents a push alert on their mobile phones, giving them seconds of warning before the shaking triggered by an earthquake reaches them.

However, it's not an earthquake prediction tool, experts said. Instead, the system rapidly detects and provides information about earthquakes that have already begun and includes an estimate of the earthquake's size, location and the shaking it may produce. 

"Nothing can replace families having an emergency plan in place and being at least two weeks ready," said Gov. Jay Inslee in a prepared statement. "We all know an earthquake could strike at any time. An Earthquake Early Warning system could provide the critical time needed for Washingtonians to drop, cover and hold on. It has the potential to save lives and reduce damage to critical infrastructure."

Although the system will be operational on May 4, there still remains work to be done. The U.S. Geological Survey and its partners, including the University of Washington, will be adding more seismometers to the network through 2025. The agency said the sensor network is only about 65% complete for Washington state, so more work is needed to further enhance ShakeAlert's capability and improve delivery speed of alerts.

Experts said on or before May 4, residents will want to check their phones to make sure Wireless Emergency Alerts are turned on to allow ShakeAlert's push alerts to come through. 

No tests are expected of the system on May 4. Officials said they're still examining the results from a Wireless Emergency Alert test conducted in February.