ShakeAlert could be used to preemptively halt traffic over the Fremont Bridge.

Well, there’s a time measurement I never expected to care about: “Tens of seconds.” 

That’s how far ahead of time Washington’s earthquake early warning system, ShakeAlert, which will roll out officially in spring, could warn you of an impending quake. Assuming you’re a fair distance from the epicenter: Even our best seismic sensors can’t beat the disaster-detecting powers of feeling the ground shake.

Those who receive an alert before they feel anything would have to recognize the terrifying sound emanating from their phone as different from an amber alert—a close comparison, per KUOW’s Tom Banse—and react in less time than it takes to properly wash your hands. (At least that’s another use for your go-to lathering song.)

Yet the technology’s arrival, over a year after it was adopted by similarly shaken California, has been heralded with some significant enthusiasm.

Why? ShakeAlert, regardless of how helpful it is for the layman, has some serious benefits for those in professional circumstances who can be trained to react to its alert with potentially life-saving measures. Think surgeons warned to remove pointy things from patients’ bodies, bridge operators able to halt traffic over the Ship Canal, teachers given a few extra seconds to instruct a class full of six-year-olds to duck and cover. 

Another listed benefit of ShakeAlert is psychological: It’s a way to prepare us for the terror of the earth moving beneath us. When the Nisqually quake hit Western Washington twenty years ago this Sunday, the only resulting death was caused by a heart attack. Would tens of seconds make a difference? We'll take all the prep we can get.

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