Mexico has had an early warning system since 1992, Japan put one in place a year and a half ago and California could be next.
When an earthquake occurs, it sends seismic waves out from the epicenter. The more destructive "S" waves move about two miles per second, but the speed of an electronic warning message can be sent faster -- at the speed of light.
"So if you know the earthquake has already begun, you can send advance warning or early warning to people far away before the strong shakes actually reaches those sites," U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Douglas Given said.
Chances are, those closest to the epicenter will get no warning, but people may get up to a minute's warning if they are far enough away.
Project scientists have just completed three years work on an early warning system, funded by the USGS. Now, they are ready to create a prototype with a small group of test users in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
"Utilities, transportation, pipelines, electric companies, phone companies, things like that -- more sophisticated users who can take that information and use it to protect their infrastructure," Given said. "For example, there's a 911 call center in Southern California; they can take a very simple action, they can open firehouse doors."
Project scientists are also talking to BART, whose trains are susceptible to tremors. The faster they are going, the stronger they will shake.
"Our warning would go from our computers to their computers and after they develop the procedures, the computers could respond more or less automatically slowing the trains down," Peggy Hellweg of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory said.
Given says the pilot system should be developed soon.
"We'll probably have some prototype information going out to these end users within a year," he said.
Eventually, project scientists want to broaden the project to the general public who would get the warnings via TV, cell phones and social networking devices.