OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — The U.S. Geological Survey and California’s Office of Emergency Management are testing out a new tool that could alert people via cell phone of an impending earthquake in the critical seconds before the shaking begins.

The early warning system is called Shake Alert. On March 27, a first-of-its-kind test will try to determine how fast and effective the warning would be. The alert will sound between 11:00 am and 12:00 pm to cell phones in a 60-block section of downtown Oakland west of Lake Merritt.

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“You’ll receive an alert in the same way that you receive an Amber Alert or a severe weather warning,” said Ryan Arba of the California Office of Emergency Services. “We’re asking people in the alert zone to fill out a survey to help us determine whether or not using wireless emergency alerts is a feasible option for sending earthquake early warnings.”

Arba said a real earthquake would trigger some of the hundreds of seismic sensors throughout the state and the alert would come seconds before the quake.

“It has the potential to provide seconds to tens of seconds of warning before shaking arrives at your location,” said Robert de Groot of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Arba said the hope is that the alert will provide enough time so that those who receive it “can be in that protective stance down on the ground, hands over your head, to protect yourself from falling items that can happen in big earthquakes and you can get there ahead of the earthquake starting.”

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Some Oakland residents told KPIX 5 they worried mere seconds would not provide enough of a warning.

“I mean if it’s only a few seconds, is it gonna help?” asked Lucy Thomas.

Sukhmeet Kohli of Oakland said he would hope that the alerts would come with additional information about the quake.

“I would hope they would have some instructions on what to do,” he said.

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Arba said the people who receive the alert will be asked to fill out a survey answering questions about how quickly the system worked. He said ideally, the alert would not only provide warnings to people before an earthquake, but it could be used to slow trains, open fire house doors, and shut off valves on water supply sources.