The intermittent headlights from oncoming traffic momentarily light up the cab of the brilliant red 1-ton pickup truck, as Normand Pitre sits quietly driving back to his St-Zotique home. The dark cabin interior is revealed by the dim orange light of Pitre’s ham radio. There is a constant rattling buzz, like the patter of raindrops on a tin roof, emanating from the radio as Pitre cycles through the frequencies searching for a signal. As he nears into a channel, an alien-esc voice begins to become audible, he turns his frequency nob until the signal is locked-in, the voice becomes clear and distinctively human.
Pitre breaks his silence “Victor Echo 2 November Hotel Kilo, monitoring…” it’s phonetic alphabet for VE2NHK, his call sign, which is a internationally recognized identifier to him alone. His two inch long goatee sways as he speaks in a uncharacteristically clear voice that shrouds his normally thick Valley-speak accent. His shoulder length hair is held back by a baseball cap that he readjusts with a tug on brim as he continues to cycle through channels.
“[If] I’m here [and] you’re there, how [would] you know what’s happening here without communications?” Pitre explains laughingly “Oh boy! Imagine something like a hurricane went by. What would be left of communications then?”
Pulling into his bungalow, an hour and a half west of Montreal, one can easily notice the 5 foot tall antenna protruding from the a-frame roof. With the 10 watt, home-made, hand-soldered copper tubing perched on his roof, Pitre is “able to reach the antenna at Rippon or Lake Placid, N.Y.” He turns off his truck’s mobile rig, enters his home, and instantly turns on his base rig which temporarily sits beside his kitchen table. Other than his radio equipment the set up is: simple, quiet, with a pen and paper to take notes.
“Almost every day, either at home or in the car, when I’m awake I listen,” he continues “but [it’s] different in [an] emergency. Me and others, we deploy to where we are needed with our equipment.”
Currently on disability and unemployed Pitre volunteers his time as deputy director of Quebec for Radio Amateurs of Canada. Unbeknownst to the public Pitre and the thousands of individuals like him are Canada’s last line of communication in case of emergency or disaster. They are formally known as Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES).
Often during a disaster or emergency regular modes of communication such as home phones, cellphones and VHF radios – like those in ambulances – can become overwhelmed and unusable. During these events critical infrastructures such as phone lines and power can fail as a result of the destruction.
In the aftermath of the January 12 2010 Haitian earthquake communications in and out of the country were crippled. As most North America slept, amateur radio operators began to mobilize their response. The first step was to clear certain frequencies in case amateur radio operators from the country were trying to communicate to the outside world. Two frequencies were reserved by amateur radio operators for emergency calls from Haiti. For the first hours post-earthquake the normally busy airwaves were eerily silent.
“You might not hear the poor operator in the field with his power cut back to save his only battery and a simple dipole [simple wire antenna] set up on the rubble. “ Bob Sharp VA3QV wrote on his popular amateur radio blog. “The fact that you can’t hear him does not mean he is not there.”
In fact they were there, soon amateur radio operators began to speak across the airwaves. Father John Henault HH6JH, a pastor in Port-au-Prince, was one of the first to break the silence. He reported that he had no power, no phone service and that he was operating on battery power. He asked the station receiving him in Florida to telephone his relatives to tell them that he was ok. Messages like this began to pour out of the country. ARES members from across North America leap-frogged messages to each other. Slowly a clearer picture of the aftermath was being revealed and requests for help were dispatched.
ARES members are licensed radio amateurs who register their equipment and expertise for public service during a disaster. Their only distinct qualifications are their amateur radio licenses and “a sincere desire to serve.” Amateur radio licensing is done through Industry Canada because it involves the use of government controlled airwaves. License hopefuls must take a written test of 100 questions, on topics ranging from conductors, frequencies and the legal aspects of broadcasting on the airwaves.
Once accepted ARES members are given an extensive training manual which guides them in step-by-step communication procedures during an emergency. Their goal is to aid emergency responders during a crisis by delivering communications services where and when they are needed. Many ARES members chose to have their car plates changed to their call signs so that emergency officials can quickly spot them on the road and ask them to work as impromptu communication systems.
“The ice storm was a classic case, in the dark triangle, you will find a number of cases where amateur radio was the only means of communications!” James R. Hay VE2VE eagerly remarks. Amongst a long list of tittles – he is the vice president of technical and administrative services of Radio Amateurs of Canada, “That’s where it’s useful, it’s exactly that sort of thing!”
A licensed amateur radio operator since 1990, Hay has been heavily involved in the administration of amateur radio in Canada. Yet he sheepishly admits that he hasn’t “been on the air as much as I would want since being stuck behind a desk.” A network administrator running his own web-hosting service, his 6 foot 3 burly frame towers over others but his grey Abe Lincoln-esc beard, thick glasses coupled with his jovial personality makes him easily befriend-able character.
“The people who are involved in amateur radio are from every part of society: some are wealthy some are not,” Hay observes. “For whatever reasons some people are interested in tinkering with radios so they take on this hobby. That’s one of the beauties of the hobby: You name it, we have it!”
When all other systems fail, local municipalities, emergency personnel and governments turn to these ‘Amateurs’ hobbyists. Yet the term could be no where further from the truth.
“We say amateur but there’s a licensing part to it, there is a course and an exam,” insists Darren Dumoulin a senior advisor on Emergency Management and a 20-year veteran firefighter. “They’re not all that amateur.”
In his downtown office adorned with press photographs of himself fighting his way into house infernos, the tall, clean shaven, fire-chief is surrounded by Pelican™ cases full of back-up communications equipment and a ever present VHF radio squelching softly on his desk. Four computer monitors surround his desk: one is a back-up computer which sits beside a back-up computer which is 6 inches from his computer – not to mention the two other back-ups that sit in separate Pelican™ cases in the corner of the room.
“They would be a communication resource to me,“ Dumoulin explains ARES’ usefulness to emergency managers,” if all else fails and if I had no other way to contact out another community for assistance… Thats how they can help us out.”
To stay useful to their emergency responding counterparts, amateur radio operators are constantly perfecting their skills with regular competitions on a seemingly weekly basis where most involve setting up a radio station with limited time and operating for prolonged periods of time. ARES members have ample opportunity to perfect their skills with these competitions called ‘field days’.
“Field days are the closest thing that you can get to a disaster [in terms of training],” Paul Larrera VE2OFH president of Montreal Amateur Radio Club describes over a crackling cellphone connection. “I am currently cooking up dinner for my HAMs [shorthand for amateur radio operators], but maybe I should keep them hungry, gets them angry so they’ll work harder!”
From a fellow amateurs home in middle of St-Laurent, Larrera, a short balding man with a short un-kept beard, is doing his shift as cook for the rest of the team. He speaks in a constant jesting manner. Light hearted and extremely eager to help from the cramped kitchen, spatula in one hand and phone in the other he attempts to explain the importance of amateur radio over the weak connection. He is currently competing in is a weekend long call sign gathering event. The goal of the event is to communicate with as many other call signs as possible noting them down once they have confirmed contact. Events like these help amateur radio operators to hone their skills and to practice communicating large distances.
The largest field days involve a greater amount of difficulty, amateur radio operators are forced to live off-the-grid while keeping a constantly operational radio station for 24 hours. Though Pitre doesn’t compete, he does attend the field day as an organizer, helping others set up their towers. The set up is quite simple, a generator powers a radio which broadcasts a single out of an antenna placed on an elevated structure.
Amateur radio operators must understand the science of everything from voltage to the bouncing capabilities of a given atmospheric condition. For ARES members like Pitre understanding the science comes with the duty and dedication. “The thing is communications become the eyes and ears of everyone.” He reassures that he can easily be spotted on the street driving in his red pick-up truck capped with five two-meter high antennas or by his car’s distinct license plate: VA3NHK.