Program leader Prof. Carlos Ventura of the University of B.C. said as little as five seconds could make a difference, if it allows students a chance to duck under a desk.
Ventura, who's the director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Facility at UBC, said the detectors could give up to 40 seconds notice before a quake hits, depending on the location of the epicentre.
British Columbia is on a fault line and earthquake readiness has been an ongoing concern. Scientists have predicted the province is due for a major ground-shaker and in 2012, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck Haida Gwaii, about 700 kilometres north of Vancouver off the B.C. coast.
The province shares the same fault line with California which just saw a magnitude 6 quake rock Napa Valley, the state's wine region. Fires were sparked, bottles were smashed and power was cut in the area.
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Sensors are being placed on the grounds of 50 Catholic and two public schools in the Lower Mainland as part of a pilot project funded by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the provincial government, Ventura said.
The detectors, which are expected to start working by the end of the month, are sensitive to waves produced only by earthquakes, and send electronic signals to a computer hub in the university.
"They detect the characteristics of an earthquake which is typically different than a truck going by or somebody walking or doing construction work," Ventura said in a Wednesday interview.
After the data is quickly analyzed, an alarm is sounded to all of the schools in the program over the building's speaker system.
There are safeguards that prevent false alarms from happening, he said.
Two sensors are installed two metres beneath the grounds of the selected schools and both must be triggered for a warning to be signalled.
Whether or not other sensors in nearby schools were triggered will also be considered before an alert is sounded.
"If we have confirmation at least two sensors on the site or other locations are triggering then that is confirmation," he said.
Ventura said having an alarm go off is invaluable, not just as an early warning, but also because it gives people certainty as to whether an earthquake is happening.
“When the shaking starts you tend to go into denial,” he said in a written statement. “You think it’s a truck going by, construction, or kids running around and you lose precious seconds that can make a difference between being safe and being injured.”
Ventura and his team will be training students in duck-cover-hold drills for when the alarms go off.
As the project continues, Ventura hopes the sensors will be able to detect the location of the epicentre and severity of the earthquake.