That's the idea behind a new research network that can pinpoint the exact location and magnitude of strong earthquakes in a matter of seconds.
The Real-Time Earthquake Analysis for Disaster Mitigation Network uses GPS measurements from nearly 500 stations throughout California, Oregon and Washington in order to generate instant calculations on the size and strength of an earthquake.
"This is about gathering information of the event while it's happening, it's not about predicting the event in advance," said Dr. Frank Webb of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We can provide valuable information in response to earthquakes as they're unfolding."
Video from GPS monitoring stations in Japan during last year's devastating earthquake shows how seismic waves swept across the country. The network in the western U.S. will work much the same way, using information from local GPS stations near the epicenter to alert first responders in outer areas of what's in store.
"That earthquake took several minutes, I think seven or so minutes, for the seismic waves to go all up and down Japan," Webb said. "So a few minutes after the event, that's reasonable warning."
In theory, the network could send you a text alert on your mobile phone, giving you a heads up that the ground is about to start shaking in the area where you're standing. It might only be a 60-second head start, but that could give you time to get somewhere safe.
The network is a collaboration between several universities, the California Institute of Technology and JPL, and it's still only a prototype. However, researchers say it has great potential for helping earthquake prone areas prepare for what they should expect when "The Big One" hits.