ANNE FARRIES – The people who keep communication lines open when disaster strikes are looking for new talent.
That’s amateur radio clubs, and they’re increasingly filled by people above the age of 50, who would like to prepare the following generation to help in a crisis, says Mike Johnson, emergency management co-ordinator for Cumberland County.
“We have so much technology that we rely on, and when it’s taken away, it creates a problem,” Johnson said Thursday. “There’s no question we need new blood.”
Once licensed, amateur radio operators — or HAM operators — can “set up a radio with a 12-volt battery and transmit to the world, to let them know how things are,” Johnson said.
In a crisis, if the servers that look after cellphone and landline transmission are down, “getting hold of emergency responders gets to be difficult, because people who live in, say, a 661 prefix can’t call a 667 prefix, so they can’t get through to the emergency service,” Johnson said.
So in Cumberland County, for example, “ (HAM) radio members go to the various fire departments where we’ve already arranged equipment,” Johnson said.
“We broadcast to the public: If you have an emergency, please call the local fire department. From the local fire department that information is passed on to the amateur radio member, who relays it through to a central location where the appropriate organization — ambulance, fire, police — is able to respond to the incident.”
That system was formalized in 2008, after a backhoe on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway in Amherst cut the fibre-optic cable, Johnson said.
“All digital communication east of that point to Newfoundland went down. ATMs, all 1-800 numbers, 911 — even TMR (trunk mobile radio, used by police and fire services) linking is done by Internet, so the communication between TMR towers went down.
“It was a major communication loss.”
During that incident, fire departments radioed emergency calls to a central location, where the appropriate agency was notified.
That led to amateur radio clubs agreeing to provide service to several fire stations in Cumberland County and now, “they’re deeply entrenched with us,” Johnson said.
“They have offices in here . . . with high-frequency radios for worldwide communication, as well as VHF for local communication.
“We purchase equipment, they maintain the process. So we get a lot of free work out them and they get some equipment out of us. It works out very well.”
There are about 35 people in the Westcumb Amateur Radio Club, one of 29 clubs in the Maritimes. Members share technical tips and run field days, including fox hunts, where a low-power transmitter is hidden and the person who finds it first wins a free radio.
They also help in fundraisers, such as athletic races through areas where cellphone service is not available.
“We have a very active organization here, a forward-looking group of people, and we have a great relationship with the municipality,” Johnson said.
A list of clubs in Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and New Brunswick is available at http://www.maritimeamateur.ca/