After years of development, the U.S. government has quietly started testing an earthquake early warning system in California.
Around 30 scientists working on the project are currently the only ones receiving the messages. The warnings are not broadcast to the general public.
Testing began in February but the system is still in its infancy.
"It's not perfect," said University of California, Berkeley seismologist Richard Allen, a project participant. "Frankly, it's stuck together with duct tape, but it's operational."
Researchers are hoping with more funding from the government, they will be able to develop an early earthquake warning system for the public, like the one in Japan that that has been credited with saving lives during the March 11 magnitude-9 disaster.
Supporters of an early warning system say even a five-second notice could save lives.
"You want to get under a sturdy table before things start falling off the wall," Allen said. "We don't want people to start running out of buildings."
The system is designed to detect the first pulses of energy after a seismic event. Underground sensors detect the faster-moving and less damaging primary waves before the more powerful secondary waves arrive -- energy waves that can flatten buildings.
How much of lead time for warning people depends on the distance from the quake's epicenter. It could be only seconds or tens of seconds.
But supporters say what is done during those precious seconds could ultimately matter.
"Trains can be slowed or stopped. Air traffic controllers can halt takeoffs and landings. Power plants and factories can close valves. Schoolchildren can dive under their desks and cover their heads," project chief Doug Given of the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Even though work continues to develop a first-class system, it suffers from a serious lack of funding.
Scientists estimate it will cost $80 million over five years to create a statewide public alert system and millions more annually to maintain it.