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Earthquake early-warning app could be coming soon

A damaged building is seen in Napa, California after an earthquake struck the area in the early hours of August 24, 2014. California's governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency following the strong 6.0-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful to hit the San Francisco Bay area since the 1989 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake.

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As far-fetched as it may seem, the idea of an app-based earthquake warning system could soon become a reality.

Early Warning Labs, a California-based startup, has teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey to develop an earthquake early warning system called QuakeAlert over the next 3 years. The system, based on cloud technology, includes a smartphone app and and in-home alarms that will notify users moments before the shaking occurs in their location, and warn them how intense it will be.

The company explains that a network of seismic sensors detects the first energy to emerge from a quake before the ground shaking begins; then QuakeAlert can use that data to warn those in the affected area before they feel the impact.

While the system may give users a only few seconds warning, depending on their distance from the epicenter, developers say that's enough time to save lives by alerting people to take cover. It could also give officials enough time to shut gas lines, stop mass transit, open firehouse doors, and take other steps that may help reduce damage or speed recovery.

"The objective of an earthquake early warning system is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking intensity to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts," according to the company's website.

The app itself also provides tips on what to do if a user is indoors, outdoors or in a moving vehicle. The app and the in-home alarms are currently available for pre-order on the company's website. It

The app will be free, but the accompanying alarm devices will cost $100 each, EWL co-founder Josh Bashioum told Tech Crunch.

The app will be connected to a cloud-based system that will send earthquake warnings to app users' smartphones.

Earthquakes cause an annualized loss of several billion dollars to the U.S., according to the USGS. Other types of earthquake warning systems have been implemented in Japan, Taiwan, Mexico and other countries, according to EWL's website.