Shake Alert: CHC’s Dare Baldwin helps US Geological Survey determine what people do wrong in earthquakes


Story by Abbey McDonald, CHC Communications
Video by Eden McCall, CHC Communications
Animation by Tanya Mikheyeva, CHC Communications

When Dare Baldwin experienced her first earthquake as a grad student, she tried to reach a doorway for protection until the shaking stopped. That, she says now, was the wrong thing to do.

Although it is instinctive for most people to escape a dangerous situation, such as running out of a building during an earthquake, their instincts might not be doing them any favors. But with several seconds of prep time, logistics and information can overrule the pulse of instinct.

As of March 11, The ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System will be available across Oregon. It will be joining California, which has implemented this system since 2019, and Washington which will activate it this May. Operating via phones, Shake Alert can now tell you an earthquake is happening seconds before the ground begins to move, thanks to a United States Geological Survey project involving Clark Honors College Professor Dare Baldwin.

Baldwin used her expertise —and experience— to analyze how people behave during an earthquake. She asks what people do when the plates start to rattle in the cupboards, what outdated misinformation they still follow and how who they’re with impacts what they do.

Using sensors to detect the energy waves emitted by fault movement, ShakeAlert will be able to determine the earthquake’s location, size, and estimate how long it will last. From there, partner agencies will notify services such as hospitals and transportation to take protective actions. It will also let people know via phone or internet alert that it’s time to “drop, cover, and hold on.”

There’s a lot to consider when designing a communication service that asks people to act within a matter of seconds, according to Robert de Groot, the USGS Coordinator for Communication, Education, Outreach and Technical Engagement.

“It’s really the time duration, and understanding from many different angles including education, sociology, psychology, everything that you could think of,” says de Groot. “Understanding how to optimize that response is critical. We want people to take that productive action, to react to the alert. And not only that, but to do the right thing. And so really Dare has a way of getting us to that point of seeing that particular piece.”

For the project, Baldwin studied videos recorded by people during earthquakes that they posted on social media. She used the 2018 Anchorage earthquake, a disruptive 7.0 magnitude, as an example. In one video, a father is in the kitchen when the shaking starts. He grabs his child and runs out of the room, only to realize he forgot the baby in the high chair. When he runs back into the room for the baby, he brings the older child back into the danger zone with him before running back out.

“You get the feeling of total panic that this dad is experiencing,” Baldwin says.

Baldwin says it shows how who you’re with and who you want to protect can affect your judgment and reactions. Instead of running around, the family should have sheltered under the dining room table.

She’s been able to look at earthquake clips from homes in cities such as Anchorage and Los Angeles, and also in public places with surveillance footage like airports and courthouses.

“There's quite a bit of diversity in the way that people physically respond to this major shaking,” Baldwin says.

Many of those reactions are not the USGS recommended “drop, cover, and hold on,” which prevents people from falling over, and protects their head and neck from falling objects.

Common responses — that range from unhelpful to dangerous — are to repeatedly shout “Earthquake!” without moving, start recording it on their phone or go under a door frame.

She also looks for what triggers these responses, including the shaking itself, something falling or someone else shouting at them.

“As soon as you start looking at it you start realizing there's these layers of complexity,” Baldwin says. “Social layers, process layers as well as prior knowledge, like people going to doorframes when that's the wrong thing to do.”

Baldwin is one of several at the University of Oregon who are integral to the ShakeAlert project in Oregon. They include Hollie Smith at the School of Journalism and Communication, and Professor Douglas Toomey and ShakeAlert Regional Coordinator Lucy Walsh from the Department of Earth Sciences.

“It’s fundamentally an interdisciplinary problem,” Baldwin says. “This social science working group at USGS that I'm a part of — headed jointly by Dr. Sara McBride and Dr. DeGroot — helps to showcase that that we really need to bring perspectives to bear on something like earthquake preparation that folds in the expertise of so many different disciplines.”

ShakeAlert can’t predict when an earthquake will strike, but Baldwin has helped the program predict how people may react when it does—and to refrain from running for the doorways.