B.C. tests emergency alert, but earthquake warning system still years away

Click to play video: 'Canada not on board with U.S. earthquake early warning system' Canada not on board with U.S. earthquake early warning system
WATCH: As the province tests its emergency alerting system, some are questioning why B.C. doesn't have an even more elaborate system like the one that recently went live along the U.S. west coast. Kylie Stanton reports – May 5, 2021

Cellphones across B.C. lit up at 2 p.m. on Wednesday as the province tested out its emergency alert system, but it will still be several years before residents can count on an early warning in the case of an earthquake.

Canada is in the process of developing its earthquake early warning system, meant to detect shaking and send notifications that could buy the crucial seconds that save lives.

Read more: Emergency alert to be sent to B.C. mobile phones on Wednesday

“Things are starting to happen; it’s really exciting,” seismologist Alison Bird, liaison and outreach officer with Earthquake Early Warning at Natural Resources Canada said.

The tool won’t be be ready until 2024, but Washington state launched its own early warning system Tuesday, joining California and Oregon who are using similar technology.

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A network of sensors has been installed along the U.S. west coast to detect primary waves, or “P-waves,” generated by a quake.

Those waves move faster than the secondary, or “S-waves,” which cause destructive ground shakes.

Click to play video: 'B.C. looking to buy new hybrid earthquake sensors to provide early warning data' B.C. looking to buy new hybrid earthquake sensors to provide early warning data
B.C. looking to buy new hybrid earthquake sensors to provide early warning data – Mar 17, 2019

By detecting and sending alerts about the P-waves, the system allows governments and institutions to take emergency action before the shaking starts.

Emergency alert notifications like the ones British Columbians got Wednesday are dispatched, and automated systems can also be triggered — ultimately saving lives.

“Moving elevators to the nearest floor, stopping trains, stopping planes from landing, stopping traffic from going into tunnels or going onto bridges,” Bird said, citing examples.

“All these little things that you can do with just a few seconds of warning really dramatically reduces the impact of an earthquake.”

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Read more: Mexico had an early warning system for its big quake. Vancouver doesn’t yet

In communities like Tofino, where tsunami warning systems are now well established and proven to work, officials say this new technology can be integrated seamlessly.

“There’s lots of ways that you can mitigate the damage, or lessen the damage that happens during the shaking — which allows you as a community to recover better, and makes you more resilient as well,” Keith Orchiston, District of Tofino emergency program coordinator, said.

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Seismologist explains how Canada’s tsunami warning system works – Jan 23, 2018

Canada is working with the U.S. on the system and will be using the same software, eventually sharing data across the border.

But contracts to build the new sensors north of the border are all local.

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“We will be using the Nanometrix Titan sensor, for half of our installations –- and then there’s going to be another sensor that we will be announcing soon,” Bird said.

Read more: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life’: Tofino visitor describes tsunami threat

Getting the technology from the drawing board and into service will cost an estimated $10 million over the next three years.

But it will also buy those few precious seconds, and in that moment, it will most definitely be worth it.

“It’s a challenge, but the technology has reached a point where it can meet that challenge,” Bird said.

“This is just one of those next steps that’s going to help make things safer.”

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