Volunteers provide key emergency communications

EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS: Russell Storry, emergency radio coordinator, recently participated in a practice session during which an email was sent and received using ham radios and netbook computers.
Equipment allows emails to be sent using ham radios and battery-powered computers
by Laura Walz | editor@prpeak.com
Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 11:21 AM PST
Ham radio operators in Powell River are a key part of the region’s emergency response system. Members of Powell River Amateur Repeater Society and Powell River Amateur Radio Club volunteer to be part of the emergency radio communication unit, which comes under the umbrella of Powell River Regional Emergency Program (PRREP).

A major disaster on the West Coast would have the potential to knock out communications, including telephone and Internet service. The unit would activate equipment kept in an emergency communications trailer, which can be set up wherever an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) would be established. Both the Powell River Regional District and City of Powell River have contributed funds for equipment, as well as a grant from BC Gaming.

The emergency radio communications group, which has 10 regular members, is part of Emergency Management BC (EMBC), said Russell Storry, emergency radio coordinator. “We have identify cards and coverage through WorkSafeBC for a tasked event,” he explained. “We complement Emergency Social Services [ESS] and ground search and rescue.”

The trailer is equipped with generators and fuel, Storry explained. “Our task is to pass messages. We provide backup communications in the event that telephones and Internet are not available.”

The group recently added a system which enables them to send digital messages within the region and also to Victoria, using a combination of amateur radios and other equipment. The system allows an EOC in Powell River to have outside communications and both send and receive messages.

Digital messages can be sent between two ham radios connected to netbooks or laptop computers that can run off batteries, explained Derek Poole, a radio operator with the unit. “With the software we’re using and that hardware, we can send text messages, emails back and forth,” he said.

Without the system, communications would be voice-to-voice over the radio, Poole said, or actually picking the message up physically and delivering it. “The problem with a real large-scale event can sometimes be the radios can really get tied up with the urgency of the communications,” he said. “This uses a different system, a different set of frequencies and it’s very fast. When you send a message with this method, once it’s all set up and you push the go button, it’s a matter of a few seconds and it passes the whole message. It doesn’t tie up the airways to any extent at all.”

Currently, the system works radio-to-radio directly, so it is restricted by distance. The plan is to install a digital repeater on Texada Island, which would allow the group to work in more isolated areas, Poole said.

While the system is somewhat slower than normal Internet service, it is possible to send small attachments, Poole said. “For example, if you had specific, written instructions that you had to pass on, the commander or whoever was in charge could sign that off and send it off signed to another location,” he said. “They could receive it and it could be an official document as part of whatever exercise you are involved in.”

Poole said he was excited about the new capabilities, which he said has applications for search and rescue as well. “If we were in the backcountry and there were poor communications back into the front, we could do equipment requests or resource requests using this system.”

The group is looking for more members, said Storry. “The issue for us would be if we had an event, to provide volunteers on a continuous basis around the clock for a number of locations takes a lot of people.”

People interested in volunteering don’t have to have their own ham radios, but most do. People do need an amateur radio licence to use amateur radio bands, Storry explained, and computer skills are helpful.

Members of the society assist newcomers with learning how to become an EMBC registered radio communications volunteer. The society meets on the first Saturday of the month from September to June at the Cranberry Training Centre.

Interested readers can find more information by following the PRREP links on the regional district’s website.