Apple Slides Earthquake Early Warning System into iOS 5

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Would a phone-based alert system have saved lives in Japan, had one been available for iOS users when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that raised a wall of water devastating much of Japan’s Pacific coastline hit in early March this year? Apple’s betting yes. Cupertino’s adding a special earthquake notification widget to the Japanese version of iOS 5 that’ll allow owners to tap Japan’s official earthquake early warning system, reports 9to5Mac.

The service works courtesy the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), which claims to offer Japanese residents “valuable seconds…to protect themselves before strong tremors arrive.” It’s already supported on Japan’s three major mobile phone carriers (NTT docomo, au and SoftBank Mobile), and it’s been mandatory on all 3G cell phones released in the country since 2007—all, that is, except for phones from overseas manufacturers like Apple.

(PHOTOS: TIME’s Exclusive Pictures of the Devastation in Japan)

Phones that support the early warning system today play a special tone when they receive an alert from the JMA, and it’s audible even if you’ve placed your phone in “silent” mode. According to TIME‘s Lucy Birmingham, Japan has the most advanced earthquake warning system in the world. It can detect tremors, calculate the epicenter of the quake and send out warnings from over 1,000 seismographs placed around the country. So while it’s not providing feedback based on forecasting (it’s not collating seismologist predictions weeks, days, or even hours in advance), it can get the word out almost instantaneously, the moment the earthquake begins, affording people away from the epicenter precious moments to react and perhaps move to a safer, more secure location before the earthquake reaches them.

iOS 5 is still in beta, but it’s expected shortly, and once it’s available, Japanese users will be able to switch earthquake notifications on or off in iOS 5’s Notification Center. Prior to Apple’s decision to include it natively, users had to download third-party apps for earthquake notification (it’s not clear what happens to these folks now, but they’ll obviously have to offer more than the early warning feature if they want to survive). The only caveat, according to 9to5Mac’s translation of a screenshot from the new feature (in Japanese), is that it could impact battery life, since it’s “always on.”

MORE: Japan’s Earthquake Warning System Explained

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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