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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Last month's earthquakes in Indonesia and Samoa were a brutal reminder of the force of seismic shifts. It hit close to home in the San Francisco Bay area. Twenty years ago today it had experienced a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and 63 people died.

Lives could've been saved with an earthquake early warning system, but such a system is still several years away in the United States. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.

AMY STANDEN: If you ever find yourself with five seconds in front of you — five seconds before you know that a major earthquake is about to hit — Richard Allen says this is almost certainly what you should do…

Mr. RICHARD ALLEN (University of California at Berkeley): The best thing you want to do is get under a table. It's that simple. Nothing else. Get under a table.

STANDEN: Allen is a seismologist with the University of California at Berkeley. He spent the past decade working on a system that can warn people when a major earthquake is on its way. The system, which receives federal funding through the Department of the Interior, enters a final testing phase this fall, and researchers say it could be up and running by 2013. It's based on a network of seismic monitoring stations — some 400 of them — that are hidden around the state.

(Soundbite of banging)

STANDEN: This narrow concrete vault extends 100 feet into a rocky hillside above the UC Berkeley campus. Like many of these monitoring stations, it was built during the Cold War to eavesdrop on nuclear bomb tests around the world.

Mr. ALLEN: So we're now at right at the very back of the vault. The seismic instrumentation is in fact underneath these silver boxes, which is, again, more thermal insulation to keep the instrumentation very stable. There are three components back there, so we record the ground motion in the vertical up-down direction, east-west direction and then north-south direction.

STANDEN: These instruments are so sensitive that even turning out the lights in here could throw their measurements off. They're housed in bell jars, wrapped in layers of foam padding. When a quake hits, they record not just its strength and duration but the different kinds of energy that comprise it. Allen says these P waves and S waves, as they're called, are the key to prediction.

Mr. ALLEN: The first energy is P waves. And so it travels much more rapidly through the subsurface, but has very little energy associated with it. The second type of energy is called S waves. It has a lot more energy, it does a lot of the damage, most of the damage, but also it travels more slowly. So you detect the P waves and then you say something about the S waves that are going to follow.

STANDEN: When Allen and other scientists talk about earthquake early warning, they aren't talking about hours, or even minutes. They're talking about tens of seconds — or fewer, depending on your proximity to the epicenter.

Mr. ALLEN: Unfortunately, our faults go right beneath the metropolitan regions. And if you're right above the earthquake, even with the early-warning system, you probably won't get a warning. But if you're 10 kilometers, 20 kilometers, 30 kilometers away, then you start to get some warning.

STANDEN: In the Loma Prieta quake two decades years ago, residents in Oakland — where most of the deaths were — could have had about 20 seconds of warning, had the system been in place. But in future quakes, the warning could be as few as five or 10 seconds. Still, there are things you could do.

Mr. DAVID OPPENHEIMER (United States Geological Survey): Elevators stopping at the next floor when the door is opening.

STANDEN: That's David Oppenheimer with the United States Geological Survey.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Alarms going off in schools saying, you know, duck and cover, with a voice telling you what to do.

STANDEN: And how about hospitals?

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: The one example that I always like to give, because people cringe, is that, you know, if somebody's performing cataract surgery on you, and obviously you would like the surgeon to remove the scalpel away from your face.

STANDEN: Oppenheimer says he can imagine cell phone applications that pick up P-wave alerts and start counting down until the quake hits.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Ten, nine, eight, shaking will arrive in five seconds.

STANDEN: But what if it doesn't? Oppenheimer says false alarms, which have happened in Japan, are inevitable. It's one of the reasons that early warning hasn't always been an easy sell here in the states. Again, Richard Allen.

Mr. ALLEN: I think it's fair to say that funding has been a real struggle. And there's a lot of interest immediately after an earthquake, but that interest wanes very rapidly.

STANDEN: This is starting to change. Last month, the project received five million in stimulus dollars to replace old computers in the monitoring stations. Allen and Oppenheimer say the new computers can process quake data faster, adding five seconds of warning time.

Still, some potential users ask if the warning is worth the investment it would take to implement it.

Mr. PAUL OVERSEIR (Bay Area Rapid Transit): It depends on how much advance notice we have.

STANDEN: Paul Overseir is an assistant general manager for the Bay Area Rapid Transit. He says with a few seconds' warning, trains can begin to slow down — but not by much.

Mr. OVERSEIR: There's, of course, a question about whether a train doing 64 miles an hour is substantially safer than a train doing 70 miles an hour.

STANDEN: Allen and Oppenheimer say they could increase warning times by adding monitors to more rural parts of the state. The price tag for such an expansion: $80 million - about the same amount, they argue, that it might cost to do earthquake-proof retrofits to just one or two large buildings.

For NPR, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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