When the so-called "big one" hits, the system that has been in the works for a decade at Caltech could warn people of the shaking up to a minute before they feel it.
"After an earthquake has started, we can record it very quickly and then we can assess that it's going to be big enough to cause shaking and send out a warning in advance of the ground shaking," said USGS seismologist Susan Hough.
The notice all depends on how far away you are from the quake. It could be one second or up to a minute. Still, scientists say it would be a valuable tool to protect lives and property, giving people time to power down infrastructure and run for cover.
"We've already seen the benefits of these systems, in particular, in Japan, where they are able to stop the bullet trains and get warnings out to people," said Hough. "And I think if you ask people in California, 'Would you be willing to pay a few dollars a year to have this system?' I think they would say yes."
But that hasn't happened yet. The system is not fully operational because of a lack of funding and some technical kinks scientists are still working out.
On Thursday, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) will send a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, urging them to fully fund the earthquake early warning system.
"We'll probably need about $16 million a year to operate, but my guess is the savings we'll have in the event of the big earthquake will more than absorb any of the resources we put into the early warning system," said Schiff.