02/18/2015 11:31 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Early earthquake alerts begin in U.S. Pacific Northwest

A new early warning system for earthquakes begins today in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and scientists say the few seconds of preparation it will allow for could save lives.

"The traffic lights might turn from yellow to red and slow down the traffic, surgeries might be interrupted, elevators could stop at the right place," John Vidale, the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington told The Early Edition's Rick Cluff.

"A lot of it's situational awareness too — if people know what's happening, they're better prepared to do the right thing and with even 10 seconds of warning you can go find your kids or your dog and just be more ready to face what's coming."

The project is being piloted starting today in select businesses and agencies in Washington State, including Microsoft, Boeing and Providence Hospital.

Vidale said the system creates an alert as quickly as four seconds after initial, harmless waves called P waves hit, possibly giving people just a bit more advanced warning before the ground-shaking S waves arrive.  

"Earthquake. Earthquake. Shaking to begin in …15 seconds," a robotic voice will announce.

"Our instruments notice the ground shaking in an earthquake and we can figure out how big the earthquake is very quickly before the shaking gets to many locations, so it's actually very simple," he said.

As part of the pilot project, 240 seismometers have been installed throughout Washington and Oregon to detect vibrations and send readings to computers at the University of Washington for analysis.

The team is also using data from sensors that are already installed throughout British Columbia.

Vidale said if the system is effective, the alerts could be more widely available in the next year or two.

Similar earthquake alerts are already used in Japan to slow bullet trains to prevent derailment, trigger alarms in schools and shut down manufacturing equipment.

To hear the full interview with John Vidale, click the audio labelled: Early earthquake alerts piloted in Pacific Northwest.