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Medford schools tout earthquake warning system

Fourth grader Ellie Modjeski (right) and classmates move underneath desks during a earthquake drill at Oak Grove Elementary School Tuesday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

Students in Ms. Allison Guaderrama’s fourth-grade class looked a little nervous Tuesday afternoon, moments after an announcement over Oak Grove Elementary School’s public address system told them an earthquake drill was about to begin.

“Did he say hide under a chair?” asked Guaderrama.

“No!” her students responded in unison.

“He said under a ___” Guaderrama said, prompting her little ones to complete the sentence.

“Desk!” the students said.

And with that, Guaderrama’s students did what they were instructed: “drop, cover, hold on, protect yourself” as they all scrunched together under connecting desks.

“Earthquake! Earthquake! Expect shaking!” the PA announcement stated.

Of course, the shaking never came. But if it did, Oak Grove Elementary School students would have been prepared, thanks to the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System.

The system is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, and Medford School District is the only K-12 institution in the state to fully implement it. Providence Medford Medical Center and the city of Grants Pass Water Division are the only other entities in the Rogue Valley that share this distinction, school district officials said Tuesday.

“Safety and security is one of our core values that we have invested in,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of the Medford School District, before noting the unique investment in ShakeAlert. “(It) allows us to have just a few seconds, tens of seconds, before an earthquake hits, to let us be prepared and get everyone ready.”

Champion noted Medford is “in the shadow of” the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a boundary of the Earth’s plates that stretches from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Northern California. A 2013 report from Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission found the state is “simply not prepared for such an event,” which would lead to economic losses of at least $32 billion.

“It’s not a question of if this going to happen, but when,” Champion said Tuesday. “We are looking for every single second that we can find.”

A Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that occurred in 1700 was estimated at 8.7 to 9.2. By comparison, the Scotts Mills earthquake in 1993 registered a 5.6. Those events were noted by Eric Dittmer, Southern Oregon University professor emeritus in geology, who helped get the district the ShakeAlert system.

“ShakeAlert is one of those proactive systems you don’t run into as often as you would like,” Dittmer said.

Dittmer explained how ShakeAlert is not an earthquake predictor, because one has to occur in order for the system to work.

“The farther you are away from it, the more warning you get,” he said. “Think about what you would do if you had 20 to 30 seconds to find the best place that you’ve already checked out, have the students not in such a panic and adult teachers to guide them through a process of protective action.”

ShakeAlert utilizes 1,400 seismic sensors placed along California, Oregon and Washington that monitor energy release within the earth. The sensors process that energy, which is in the form of P and S waves, according to Ron Havniear, director of facilities and leadership development in the Medford School District.

“As time goes on, they spread out, and we can get the signature of those primary waves first,” Havniear said. “We can feed that to the processing center, and then that pushes it out to members of a particular community.”

Robert de Groot, an operations lead with the U.S. Geological Survey, said ShakeAlert is not a new program, but it’s innovative among schools.

“We know there are critical facilities where earthquake early warning will be valuable,” de Groot said. “One of those happens to be an educational environment.”

He noted Medford School District’s “significant” achievement among K-12 institutions in the state.

“Medford is being very thoughtful about making sure that earthquake early warning is integrated into critical facilities,” de Groot said. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out. It’s a big job. There needs to be a conversation about earthquake early warning in schools.”

There was at Oak Grove Elementary School Tuesday, when fourth-grader Ellie Modjeski participated in a drill with her peers.

“An alarm went off, so we went under a desk and covered our necks,” she said. “It was mostly quiet.”

Modjeski thought it was important to practice an earthquake drill.

“Now that I know what to expect, what to listen for, when an earthquake is happening, I can get under the desk faster,” she said.

Havniear spoke to the importance of preparation, like Tuesday’s drill, and the larger picture of protecting schools.

“When the time for execution comes, the time for preparation is over,” he said. “That foundation of preparation helps us not only respond better, but deter the cascading effects of a bigger disaster.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.