Earthquake Alert: BART Rolls It Out. No One on Board Notices. Perfect.

October 08, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle
By Peter Fimrite

The moment that everyone was waiting for — the big earthquake alert — came shortly after 11 a.m. Monday on a BART train heading from Oakland to Berkeley, and nobody noticed a thing.

The train almost imperceptibly slowed from 55 miles per hour to 27 mph halfway between the MacArthur and Downtown Berkeley stations, eliciting hardly a murmur from the assorted politicians and officials gathered for what was supposed to be the momentous unveiling of California’s earthquake warning system, known as ShakeAlert.

“That’s the way we want it to happen,” said Robert DeGroot, a staff scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey, who has spent years helping design a seamless automated alert system that reduces the chances of panic or pandemonium.

The rollout of the earthquake alert system, which seismologists say is the most sophisticated in the world, may not have inspired any wow moments, but it did provoke breathless speeches.

“To be able to actually identify and let someone know that shaking will begin in 30 seconds, in 20 seconds or in 5 seconds, whatever it is, is incredible,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, as he stood in the Downtown Berkeley BART Station following the demonstration. “This is not just a game changer. It’s a lifesaver.”

The ShakeAlert 2.0 system was designed by the USGS and the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory to warn transit systems, utilities, businesses and millions of people in California, Oregon and Washington about impending temblors.

The idea is to set up the alert, like the one BART has developed, so that trains can be slowed or stopped, pipelines and power lines can be shut down, firehouse doors can be opened, and people can have time to dive under a desk before the shaking begins.