British Columbia

B.C. not using earthquake warning technology, say engineers

Early earthquake detection technology can be one of the most effective tools in emergency preparedness. And it's being developed right here in BC. But engineers say the province is putting lives at risk by not doing enough to get the technology into our public buildings and infrastructure.

We have the technology to warn people when a big earthquake is coming. So why aren't we using it?

Dr. Kent Johansen, shown here with CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe, is a UBC civil engineering research associate and the designer behind the earthquake early warning network that has been installed in some schools across the South Coast. (CBC )

When a big earthquake hits, every second counts.

So imagine having 30, 60, or even 90 seconds of warning that the ground is about to give way.

Though it may not sound like much, it's enough time to get under a desk or a table. To pull over if you're driving. To stop surgeries, and slow trains. To shut off gas valves, open fire hall and ambulance bay doors, close tunnels — all life-saving measures. 

Thanks to Canadian engineers, the technology exists. Earthquake-prone countries like Japan have relied on it for years as an emergency preparedness tool.

But experts say in B.C., very few public schools and infrastructure projects benefit from these early earthquake warning systems.

And that has scientists scratching their heads.

Engineers frustrated by lack of investment

Kent Johansen is an engineer with UBC's Earthquake Engineering Research Facility. He developed a system that's now being used in the province's Catholic schools, and a small number of public schools. 

But it's not enough, he says — especially given the relative affordability of the technology. 

"It is really human lives. It is something that is a government's responsibility to get done," he said.

"It would be lovely if somebody would think, 'let's get it in all the schools.' Because in the big picture, it's so little [money] compared to the risk."

Andrew Weir-Jones agrees. His private engineering firm developed a system called ShakeAlarm — a model was installed in Vancouver's Massey Tunnel eight years ago.

But while publicly funded researchers like Johansen have been working on developing their own early detection tools in the years since, Weir-Jones said the province has a responsibility to invest in technology that has already been tested.

"We're not taking government money to reinvent the wheel. It's done," he said. "I would like to see the proven system out."

Putting sensors on the ocean floor

For its part, the province is starting to listen.

Earlier this year, it gave $5-million to Ocean Networks Canada — money that will be used to put eight sensors along the subduction fault on the ocean floor in hopes those sensors will pick up the moment the earth ruptures, and the megathrust begins.

We're looking at an earthquake within a 50-year span. So the delay is not really acceptable.- Kent Johansen

And though Weir-Jones and Johansen would prefer to see that money spent on installing sensors where people live and go to school, ONC president Kate Moran says it makes sense the province is putting money on the bottom of the ocean. 

"It's possible to provide an alert for a crustal [event] if it's distant enough and you have enough sensors to provide that alert. But it's not guaranteed," she said.

"But we know from the megathrust earthquake that it's technically feasible, that we can provide time for people to prepare, [to do] all those things that will protect lives and keep infrastructure safe." 

Minister of State for Emergency Preparedness Naomi Yamamoto said the province has also made $19 billion available for seismic upgrading of schools, health facilities and transportation infrastructure. She says B.C. leads the country in earthquake preparedness but admitted more could be done.

"Is there more that can be done to prepare – as individuals, businesses and governments? The short answer is yes. There will always be room for improvement, to continue investing, to keep preparing and improving in all of the foundational areas of earthquake preparedness," she said.

"There is no benchmark to perfecting preparedness. We simply must dedicate ourselves to continually work towards greater levels of readiness."

While they may not agree on how the government should be spending its cash, Johansen, Weir-Jones and Moran do agree collaboration between their groups is key — and increasingly time-sensitive — to getting early earthquake warning systems in place right across province.

"We're looking at an earthquake within a 50-year span," said Johansen. "So the delay is not really acceptable. It's something we can do, and it's affordable."