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Behind the scenes with NetQuakes’ Doug Gibbons

Technician Doug Gibbons unpacks equipment, including the mostly pre-built seismometer and a few tools, before beginning a new NetQuakes installation.

Credit: 

Timothy Oleson

Before a NetQuakes box is secured in place and an installation is finalized, its software and connection to a volunteer host’s Internet must be checked to make sure the box will communicate with USGS.

Credit: 

Timothy Oleson

Doug Gibbons, a research assistant in the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences and a NetQuakes technician, is one of several people involved in managing and maintaining the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network’s (PNSN) portion of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) NetQuakes program. Having installed many of PNSN’s NetQuakes seismometers, he is a point man for outreach and interaction with current and prospective volunteers.

It’s a position he relishes, but one that the laid-back 20-something, who began at PNSN several years ago as an undergraduate assistant, admits makes him nervous on occasion. On the one hand, he gets to travel around Puget Sound, from Olympia to Everett and beyond, making house calls and meeting people. On the other, he says he sometimes catches grief for being young.

Upon arriving at a house, he’s been asked whether he is filling in for someone else. They “expect the gray-haired, white-bearded guy” to show up and talk them through the installation process, he says. But his experience largely belies his age, and he is as comfortable talking Seattle-area sports as he is recounting earthquake tales or discussing the specifics of a host’s Internet connection.

On a drizzly winter Friday, Gibbons visits one applicant’s southwest Seattle home, breaking a customary rule-of-thumb: Never do fieldwork on a Friday; things always go wrong. “It’ll wreck your weekend,” he jokes. But the house is an ideal candidate — small in stature with a concrete slab foundation — and it’s on a main road, close to public gathering spots.

After locating a good spot in the basement and unpacking his equipment — the mostly pre-built NetQuakes seismometer, a memory card, a laptop and a few tools — Gibbons gets to work. After he finishes assembling the seismometer and aligns it with a compass (to ensure that the direction of ground motion is recorded properly), he hops on his laptop to set up the instrument’s software and make sure it will communicate with USGS over the volunteer’s Internet connection.

Unfortunately, this particular Friday holds true to form: The Internet connection is down. An hour-long phone conversation between Doug and the would-be host on one end and a technician from the service provider on the other is to no avail. “This is why we don’t drill right away,” Gibbons says, referring to the final installation step of bolting the seismometer to a concrete floor. Frustrated but good-natured, he agrees to be in contact to reschedule the installation and, on his way out, tells the homeowner to start thinking of a name for her NetQuakes box.

Timothy Oleson
Monday, August 27, 2012 - 11:30