(CN) – In the wake of the United States Geological Survey’s announcement that an earthquake early warning system is operational, millions of people across several states participated in earthquake drills on Earthquake Preparedness Day Thursday.
"We're making a large change from a production prototype in pilot mode to an open-for-business operational mode," Doug Given, the earthquake early warning coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, said during a press conference at the California Institute of Technology Wednesday.
While the warning system will soon be used for schools, businesses, utilities, government agencies and other organizations, it’s not yet ready to be deployed for the general public.
The system is designed to detect earthquakes that may occur along the west coast -- in California, Oregon and Washington -- and sends out alerts intended to arrive seconds or even minutes before the reverberations from the epicenter hit certain locations.
Officials believe these alerts will create enough time to stop industrial processes, pause surgeries, turn on backup generators or allow students to scramble under their desks.
Experts are growing more concerned that California – a significant portion of which lies atop the San Andreas Fault – will experience a large quake soon.
“California is due for sure,” said Emily Brodsky, an earthquake professor at UC Santa Cruz.
California’s last major earthquake was the Loma Prieta, which struck in October of 1989. It killed 63 people and injured approximately 3,700 – but future tremors have the potential to be a lot worse.
“It registered 6.9 on the Richter scale, but in 1906 there was an earthquake in California that measured at 8.0,” Brodsky said. “It may not sound like much, but it is significantly different. I think it’s hard for people to get that image in their head.”
Scientists are confident the system is getting better at detection and warning despite earlier bugs.
The most consequential improvement is the system’s ability to reduce false alerts, typically prompted by earthquakes in other parts of the globe that wouldn’t affect local environments.
"The system performs now much better than it did in the past to the point where it is much more reliable," Given said.
"The system is not yet finished, it's not complete, there is a lot of work to be done; however, there is a lot of capability in the system as it exists today to the point it can definitely be used," Given added.
The improvements can largely be attributed to better ShakeAlert software, which officials hope to continually upgrade. Given said he can envision a time when the early warning system will directly alert individual cell phones, even though current cellular technology is not capable of accommodating it.
The sensor network could help alleviate fatalities and injuries by allowing people to prepare. The network is about 50 percent complete, and the U.S. Geological Survey has secured funding to complete the rest of the project in California, as well as most of the Pacific Northwest, according to Given.
While the early warning system focuses on the west coast, officials also want people living in the central part of the country to be prepared.
“The central and eastern U.S. is home to several active faults, including the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which has produced three of the largest earthquakes ever felt in the continental United States in 1811-12,” said Michael Dossett, director of Kentucky Emergency Management. “As scientists estimate there is a 25-40 percent probability of a damaging earthquake occurring in the central U.S. within any 50-year window of time, it is imperative that we take necessary actions to prepare ourselves and our communities should one occur.”
For this reason, Thursday saw a slew of agencies running drills in which people dropped to their knees and covered their heads and necks throughout states not typically thought of as earthquake country.
But ShakeOut, a nonprofit dedicated to earthquake preparedness that also runs drills in California and other places with significant fault lines, is hoping to change that perception.
"Earthquakes can happen in any community at any time," said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long.