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When an earthquake occurs, a certain amount of time elapses before destructive seismic energy hits nearby population centers. Though this time is measured on the order of seconds, depending on the proximity of the rupture to a given city or town, a new public safety program in Japan is taking advantage of the fact that seismic energy travels slower than electronic communication.

In this program, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) rapidly determines the hypocenter (earthquake epicenter and focal depth) and magnitude of the earthquake by using real-time data from stations near the hypocenter. The distribution of strong ground shaking is anticipated quickly, and then the information is delivered immediately to government officials, representatives from various industries, members of the news media, and individuals before strong ground shaking reaches them. For example, on receiving the warning, the control room of a railway company can send an emergency notice to all train drivers to stop their trains immediately, elevators in buildings can be triggered to stop at the nearest floor and open their doors automatically, and surgeons can temporarily suspend their surgical operations to avoid risk to patients on operating tables.