A welcome slice of Ham
Amateur radio operators provide crucial links during emergencies

Fri, Mar 22, 2002

By Federico Barahona

They are the backbone of emergency responses, some of their radios so powerful they can even reach astronauts in outer space.

This is what Winnipeg lawyer Don Mackinnon emphasizes as he walks through the second floor of an ambulance station in St. Vital. Behind the doors Mackinnon unlocks are high-powered radios that can access thousands of frequencies, various transmission modes (including Morse code), a number of voice models, television and various computer-related digital codes -- and it's all equipment that's been used during times of disaster.

"During any emergency situation, the normal lines of communication get overloaded," says Mackinnon, who is responsible for Manitoba's Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) -- the emergency service arm of nationally organized amateur radio, Radio Amateurs of Canada.

"We are usually the ones that can establish communication the quickest," he says. "In an emergency situation, there might not be phone lines, or they could be overloaded."

That's because the equipment used by amateur radio operators -- who are also called "Hams" -- can work independently of central communication systems that are often disrupted by natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

"We can usually set up really quickly," adds Mackinnon. "All it takes is one of our guys setting up on a roof, and we're set -- we can start talking." There are about 40,000 amateur radio operators in Canada, and more than 300 of them live in Manitoba. Mackinnon says ARES exists in every Canadian province, every American state and almost everywhere in the world.

During a disaster, ARES will respond through the Manitoba Emergency Management Organization. During the 1997 flood, ARES teams were stationed in various communities along the Red River, providing backup communications, and helping the city communicate with various sandbagging sites.

Mackinnon says as many as 130 volunteers put in almost 7,000 hours of volunteer service during that incident.

But he stresses the operators are "amateurs" only in the traditional sense of the word.

"That doesn't mean we don't know what we're doing," says Mackinnon.

In fact, he's quick to say the opposite is true -- "amateur" radio operators must pass rigorous federal testing to operate their equipment and take to their airwaves. And as if that wasn't enough, ARES personnel are also required to take courses in emergency management. "But we're just not allowed to be paid," adds Mackinnon, who says that international conventions stipulate an operator's work has to be on a volunteer basis and unpaid. In exchange, the federal government gives Hams in Canada access to thousands of frequencies, which they can use to communicate.

That kind of access often allows amateur radio operators to hear sensitive information. "But the access doesn't mean we're allowed to pass on the information," warns Mackinnon.

It was almost a month ago when RCMP Const. Mike Templeton was shot in the face near Portage la Prairie. Something that irks Mackinnon is that initial reports had an amateur radio buff intercepting and recording the call Templeton made after the shooting -- the call was later supplied to the local media, who broadcast it.

Mackinnon is quick to say that conversation was not intercepted by one of his guys -- he's worried about the perception that it might've been.

"Obviously, we're very sensitive to that," he says. "That fellow was not a Ham. This causes us some concern. Arguably, it's illegal. I would hope our guys know better than to pass on that kind of information."

Although many amateur operators take to the airwaves as a hobby, Mackinnon says it's their work during times of disaster that makes amateur radio most memorable. Hams were among the first to establish communication with Manhattan only minutes after the attacks of Sept. 11 -- as conventional phone lines became overwhelmed.

Amateur operator John Agar remembers the first hours after the World Trade Center was levelled as frantic, with countless people all over the world wanting to know if their loved ones were OK.

"We couldn't radio that first day," says Agar. "The guys in New York were so busy."

He says the operators in New York were literally directing traffic, telling other operators what they needed and when to talk.

"That particular day, you could not disturb them," he adds. "They passed along a lot of data."

Agar remembers that during the 1997 flood the roles were reversed -- then it was Winnipeg ARES operators controlling the flow of communication, telling other Hams around the world what they needed. Agar says that a lot of seniors are interested in being amateur radio operators.

"They want to keep in touch with their kids who've moved away, that's how some people become interested," he says.