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Because it is computer-driven, this process can happen almost instantly.
Such a system can provide seconds of valuable warning time, up to a minute-and-a-half in some cases.
Caltech says their early warning system worked well during the 5.3 magnitude quake which shook the Southern California coast on Thursday.
The success shows that the system can work to provide a warning to people before shaking starts.
The quake was an event of moderate intensity and had it occurred in Los Angeles, it might have done some light damage or caused injuries. USGS and Caltech engineers are working on an early warning system that uses sensors across the state to detect the first waves of an earthquake and send a warning to phones via a special app.
Combined with training, such a system can save lives. Shaking is usually gentle at first, then there is a large jolt, and shaking intensifies.
The correct response is to take cover at the first sign of shaking, but many people instinctively run outdoors.
Most So Cal residents would shrug off such a quake, except the region has been in an "earthquake drought," a period of seismic calm. Similar systems are already in use in Japan and Mexico.
A struggle for funding has resulted in the program taking more than 12 years so far in California.