(Credit: ShakeAlertLA)

Earthquakes are a constant worry for the more than 143 million Americans who live in areas with frequent seismic activity. Any amount of advance notification can save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives and allow people to prepare for the worst, prompting federal and state governments to come up with a plan. This week, the city of Los Angeles unveiled a new app, the first of its kind in the US, called ShakeAlertLA, to alert residents.

The new app will send out amber-alert-style messages to users notifying them of any earthquakes with a magnitude over 5.0. ShakeAlertLA was created through a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey, AT&T, the Annenberg Foundation and the city of Los Angeles. If there is a major earthquake, users will receive a message saying: "EARTHQUAKE, EARTHQUAKE, EXPECT STRONG SHAKING. DROP, COVER, AND HOLD ON. PROTECT YOURSELF NOW!" Users will also receive instructions on what to do during an earthquake and advice on how to stay safe during a seismic event. The app is available in both English as well as Spanish, and the system is open source so other cities can make their own versions of the app.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the app on Twitter, Facebook Live and in a press conference yesterday, telling reporters that ShakeAlertLA would "make Angelinos safer. It will save lives by giving precious seconds to you and to your family to take action and to protect yourselves when the next magnitude 5.0 earthquake or bigger hits...this technology is truly cutting edge."

SEE: The best emergency apps for hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters

"Angelenos should have every chance to protect themselves and their families when there's a major earthquake," said Garcetti in a statement yesterday. "We created the ShakeAlertLA app because getting a few seconds' heads-up can make a big difference if you need to pull to the side of the road, get out of an elevator, or drop, cover, and hold on."

Robert Degroot, from the USGS, told CBS Los Angeles that there currently is no way for people to tell whether an earthquake is happening unless they physically feel the shaking themselves. Depending on the location of the earthquake, the app's users will get notifications seconds before or after a seismic event.

"It's the first one out of the gate, and so we're very enthusiastic about what might happen. We're going to learn a lot from this," Degroot added.

"The app allows you to have that extra time to maybe protect yourself a little bit more. To do something a little bit different or if you are in a particularly precarious situation. You might be at work in a lab. You might be able to do something that could protect yourself even more rather than just having to react when the shaking begins."

ShakeAlertLA, available for both iOS and Android devices, is only one part of a larger effort by the USGS and other federal agencies to create an earthquake alert system across the entire west coast. Since 2006, the USGS has installed 865 earthquake sensing stations along fault lines for the early warning system on the west coast, with more than 600 in California. The Trump administration initially cut all funding for the program, but changed course last year, approving $22 million in funding to continue placing the sensors across the west coast. Nearly 800 more sensing stations are needed to cover the entire west coast, and California added $15 million to their state budget for precisely this. They hope to have a 1,115 functional seismic sensor stations in place across the state by 2021

LA's city council signed a $300,000 deal with AT&T and the GRYD Foundation last June to design and create the app. Other cities across California are working on their own versions of the ShakeAlert app, with some already testing notification systems with users.

The app was released on New Year's Eve but was officially announced by Garcetti yesterday. Other countries that deal with somewhat frequent earthquakes, like Japan and Mexico, have similar systems in place to notify people of dangerous seismic activity.

Users in those countries have complained about false alarms and mistakes by the system, but overall it has been instrumental in helping people prepare for dangerous natural disasters. The LA Times noted that during Japan's 9.1 earthquake in 2011, the country's early warning system notified citizens and government officials nearly 90 seconds before it hit, allowing high-speed trains to slow down and school children to hide under desks. California was heavily scrutinized last year for their early warning system, which failed to notify some people of deadly wildfires that ravaged the state.

USGS director James Reilly told LA Curbed that the system detects the size and epicenter of earthquakes before sending the information out to users. You do not need to have the app open to receive an alert about an earthquake.

"The City of LA is an important ShakeAlert partner, undertaking the nation's first test of delivering USGS-generated ShakeAlerts to a large population using a city-developed cell phone app," he said. "What we learn from this expanded pilot in LA will be applied to benefit the entire current and future ShakeAlert system."

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  1. Los Angeles is the first US city to launch a ShakeAlert app, which notifies users about any impending earthquakes and gives them information on how to stay safe.
  2. The ShakeAlertLA app is part of a larger effort by the federal government to create a west coast-wide earthquake alert system that is buoyed by thousands of seismic sensing stations placed along fault lines.

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Jonathan is a Contributing Writer for CNET's Download.com. He's a freelance journalist based in New York City. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.