West-Cumberland Radio Club does the talking when others cannot
Small, but mighty. Amateur radios can be used to establish communications across the province in an emergency. Cumberland County’s EMO co-ordinator Mike Johnson said amateur radio operators play a vital role in an emergency, such as what’s taking place in Texas with ooding from hurricane Harvey.
Forty-eight hours into the state of emergency in Houston, Texas, where a tropical storm caused massive flooding a new trouble was emerging: people couldn’t charge their cellphones.
It seems trivial in face of the rising waters, loss of life and need to evacuate the city that is home to 2.3 million people, but losing the ease and convenience of modern cellphone communication is a real anxiety for many trying to stay in contact with loved ones during an emergency, Cumberland County Emergency Measures Officer Mike Johnson explains.
“One of the biggest concerns people have is the ability to recharge their emergency devices,” Johnson said. “One of the things about our society today is that we are so connected and when we sever that connection our normal world goes away.”
New York City experienced similar circumstance in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy plummeted almost two million city residents into a power outage. Some of the first images following the storm were public cellphone charge stations set up by private citizens still with power.
More recently, Atlantic Canada experienced its own cellphone shutdown at the beginning of August. A major service outage caused by damage to Bell Aliant’s fibre optic grid impacted Internet, TV, wireless and landline phones. The 4 1/2 hour disruption caused flights to be delayed at both Moncton and Halifax airports, but more grievous was the loss of 911 services to the area and Trunk Mobile Radios, or TMR, which connect emergency responders throughout the region.
While many Atlantic Canadians looked at the disruption lightheartedly on social media, Johnson’s network was responding behind the scene to put an emergency communications system in place.
“When you have the phones go down and TMR go down you don’t have a lot left,” Johnson said.
What is at their disposal is ‘ham.’
Amateur radio, or ham radio, uses a non-commercial radio frequency and its roots go back to the 19th century. Today, operators can use the technology to communicate with across the globe and even the International Space Station and it is those licensed operators who go into action when a massive communication disruption service occurs.
“We have an incredible group here. It’s the West Cumberland Amateur Radio Club. They respond by going out and manning the fire departments,” Johnson said.
Oxford, Tidnish, Amherst. Pugwash and Springhill have ham radio equipment on site and someday Johnson expects to see the remaining departments equipped. Until then, operators can bring in equipment. With the volunteer operators available to man these radios, it frees up a trained fire fighter to respond to emergencies. A ham operator himself, Johnson says the radio community is happy to respond during an emergency. They’re also obligated to. “Having that level of communication when everything else is down is absolutely invaluable. With the amateur community, part of their licensing requirements are when governments come to them and says ‘We need you to operate,’ they are required through their licensing… it’s a commitment.”
Emergencies cannot be predicted but they can be planned for and its in the planning stages patterns can be found, Johnson said. More than 70 per cent of the emergencies in Cumberland County have been weather related. Whether it’s spring flooding or a winter ice storm like the one in 2009 that shut down power to Springhill, the weather has a hand in reminding people of the power of nature. More recently, rising sea levels have tipped the tide over dyke walls outside of Amherst. Fall 2016 did not become a widespread emergency, but Johnson said if the trend continues it could have considerable consequences to the region.
“We have 33,000 people in Cumberland County. If we had something as devastating as what’s happened in Texas, obviously there’s just not enough emergency responders to go around and help everybody so people have to be in a position to help themselves.”
Being self-sufficient for the first 72 hours in an emergency, Johnson said, gives officials time to assess the problem, the needs, and execute a plan and bring in resources.
Johnson offers workshops on creating a 72-hour emergency plan.
“I’d like to see Cumberland County public become one of the best prepared in the province of Nova Scotia,” Johnson said.
With a live newsfeed providing updates on flooding in Texas behind him, Cumberland County Emergency Measure Officer Mike Johnson checks in with local amateur radio operators.
Small but mighty, amateur radios can be used to establish communications across the province in an emergency. Many astronauts are amateur radio operators and the technology has been used to contact the International Space Station.