Emergency operators answer the call of duty

Radio volunteers practise on original social network

Doug McLean

When the ultimate of nature’s worst rears its head, the original social network could be the key to communication.

In Oak Bay, the communicators we’ll rely on in an emergency test their skills and equipment, like MERV, on a weekly basis. MERV is Oak Bay Emergency Program’s mobile emergency response vehicle, said Bob Frei, emergency radio co-ordinator who recently took the reins from Philip Lin, a volunteer for more than 20 years.

The pair raise the volunteer-crafted antenna on MERV to create the clearest signals before heading into municipal hall where Doug McLean, volunteer radio operator, will run the ‘net’ tonight.

McLean’s the one who suggests the system is “like a radio social network”. Radio operators can listen in on a frequency catching the news of the day from other users or chat back, sharing their own information.

“With the radio, as long as they’re monitoring the same frequency, they can hear,” Frei said.

The Oak Bay volunteers monitor their own, Saanich and Victoria frequencies on both UHF and VHF.

McLean monitors three radios, picking up six stations. First he reads a script outlining the organization, what they’re doing tonight, and how people can learn more – at the municipal website oakbay.ca.

Even with active background conversation in the room, he’s focused, filtering the noise to hear the necessary information coming over the airwaves.

At 18:45 (6:45 p.m. for the uninitiated) McLean starts a roll call of sorts, he’s doing the VHF ‘net’, 15 minutes later he’ll run one on the UHF.

“Those two frequencies are what we use for emergency communications,” Frei says. “We used to have CB net, it’s gone by the wayside.”

McLean hails a series of operators, some respond, others do not.

It’s all a part of learning who can get what reception from where, and who. For example, one radio responder says he could hear a response from someone McLean hailed, but the municipal hall radios didn’t receive that response. So they relay a message, good practice for an emergent situation.

“That’s why you practise,” Frei says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in an emergency. We don’t know what [infrastructure is] going to be down.”

They gauge and document reception in different areas, and all the municipalities share information on a regular basis.

They train each Wednesday, with the equipment tucked away safely in a room at municipal hall. The OBEP emergency radio operators are down to fewer than a dozen active members.

“A lot of our volunteers are boaters or retired, and at any given time half our volunteers are not here. In the summer, scheduling gets to be a dog’s breakfast.

“There are something like 2,000 licensed hams in Victoria… fewer than 200 are active,” he added.

“A lot of people are interested in radio communication because it’s interesting.”

However, some are put off by the requirement for a federal licence to operate a radio. That limitation doesn’t keep a volunteer from coming in and learning the ropes and testing the waters alongside the licensed volunteers.

“We can still teach them,” Frei said. “It’s a non-threatening kind of thing. They can come check us out any time.”

To learn more about the Oak Bay Emergency Program and its many volunteer needs, visit oakbay.ca and click on ‘public safety’.

cvanreeuwyk@oakbaynews.com