Tornadoes devastate small Ontario town

Links to this blog were sent to the Ontario Transport Minister and all Ontario MPPs. Please personally contact your local MPP and inform them of the vital and essential community service that is provided freely by local volunteer amateur radio operators and how this service could be curtailed due to the unforeseen effects of the passing of Ontario Bill 118.

Those are the headlines resulting from yesterday’s (Aug. 20, 2009) four smalltornado tornadoes which skipped across a large portion of southern Ontario. And with one confirmed dead and the likelihood of injuries yet to be reported, these storms were deadly but their power was nothing compared to what could have taken place.

With global warning thought to be causing increasingly unstable weather around the world what could happen in Ontario if a big tornado struck is becoming increasingly possible.

Like Quebec’s ice storm of 1998, the Barrie Tornado of 1985 or the 2003 power blackout that hit Ontario and seven U.S. states, wide-spread disasters can and do happen in this region.

What happens in communities affected by a natural or man-made disaster? Typically, local infrastructure fails almost immediately. Local emergency responders are overwhelmed. Communication failure cripples municipal government and even hospitals, police and fire officials find they cannot communicate within or outside their jurisdictions.

And who, in those early hours, shows up to help? It’s the local amateur radio operators who are volunteers working within the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. And they show up in great numbers with training and equipment that exceeds the capacity and reach of anything else in the community and is only equalled by equipment carried by the armed forces (who, by the way, will take several days to be mustered and readied to help out in any significant manner).

All of this free amateur radio community-based emergency response ability is being put in jeopardy in Ontario due to the unforeseen impact of a safe-driving Bill.

In Ontario, sometime this fall the Ontario Ministry of Transportation will implement Bill 118 which will make driving while using a cell phone illegal. Unfortunately, the Bill may have an unintended consequence of limiting the legal and crucial use of all two-way radio equipment in vehicles in Ontario. The limits could hit all two-way radio users such as amateur radio operators, taxis, CBers, transport and delivery companies and others.

This limitation would not only be short-sighted but, as we’ve seen in the case of emergency, dangerous putting the public at needless risk.

 We urge all legislators in Ontario to ask the Minister of Transportation to harmonize Bill 118 with other jurisdictions in North America which have seen it fit and proper to specifically exclude the amateur radio service from their legislation.

Amateur radio was never part of the problem that Bill 118 addresses and limiting its use will not be part of the answer to making provincial roadways safer.

So what could have happened in Ontario?

The series of tornadoes that hit Ontario yesterday were likely Force Two in strength. It was a Force Five tornado which hit Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999 where winds of  318 mph winds (the highest recorded on earth) killed 44 people, injured 757 and tore up 10,000 homes.

If a series of Force Three or even a Force Four (which struck Barrie) were to strike populated areas of Ontario experience tells us that almost immediately the following scenario will take place:

Hydro power fails as towers and lines collapse from the wind load. 

Cell phone towers left standing are overloaded and calls fail. The backup power on those towers fail within hours. The cell system is rendered useless.

Police, fire, ambulance and municipal service vehicles cannot communicate with their headquarters as communications towers are down. Also, their own computer-run systems are vulnerable to system failure from storm, wind and rain damage plus backup power systems will fail within hours even if the communications ability is not destroyed.

Hospitals are especially vulnerable. In situation after situation and community after community hospital administrators discover that during wide-spread disasters they cannot reach medical staff to order them to report for work. Supplies run low. Wards and hallways fill with the injured and their families. Chaos breaks out.

A state of emergency is declared.

It’s at this point that the The Canadian Red Cross Society is requested by authorities to setup emergency shelters. The Red Cross invokes a formal agreement with Radio Amateurs of Canada asking for immediate assistance to setup communications links between shelters and to Red Cross headquarters locally, provincially and even nationally if needed.

Using the services of the volunteer amateur radio operators, the Canadian Red Cross begins to gather information about who is registered as taking refuge in their field centers. This information will be used to inform friends and relatives who is safe and who is not. It will also be used to determine what supplies and what other help is needed.

Amateurs in local communities, using portable and mobile equipment are providing communications for municipal services and officials. They are able to do so because they live within the affected community itself. Hauling batteries out of vehicles, carrying two-way radio equipment in their hands amateurs find ways to erect temporary antennas and establish local, regional and even provincial communications networks.

As requested by municipal authorities, reliable communications links are setup between police, fire and ambulance headquarters. Amateurs sent to hospitals setup communications links to the new emerging system. The first ability to regain communications and some control is returned to the hands of municipal authorities.

While not ideal, these communications links allow emergency and municipal officials to communicate with each directly for the first time since the beginning of the disaster. Individual amateurs are teamed with officials and become their only means of communicating through the amateur radio network to other officials. This scenario will go on none stop for several days until officials with provincial emergency measures establish their own field units.

Remote communities fully cut-off their neighbours find local amateur radio operators are able to set up shortwave communications equipment that links them into a province-wide emergency nets. Amateurs from unaffected areas begin arriving at the Amateur Radio Emergency Service headquarters set up in the main Red Cross building and volunteering their time and equipment.

In some remote areas, amateur radio operators with powerful shortwave radios installed in their vehicles are able to communicate with other amateurs over great distances. For the first time, provincial authorities learn of the dire need in some less populated areas. (This scenario actually happened in Grand Bend which found itself cut off from the rest of the province following the Barrie tornado. It was amateur radio that first alert authorities to the situation in that community.)

While provincial Emergency Measures Organization officials (which recognizes the value of the Amateur Radio Service and even has sit’s own amateur radio station) begin to establish communications for essential services, the amateur radio service starts to scale down and focuses on working with the Red Cross and other helping agencies to help stabilize a chaotic situation which will continue to exist for another 10 to 12 days.

The Canadian Armed Forces begins to arrive in mass and is tasked with recovering bodies and securing large areas of devastation. Local communications remains in the hands of the amateur radio service until such time as emergency cell towers on trailers are setup in the community.

At the end of 10 or 20 days of endless work and 24/7 communications, the volunteers of the amateur radio service are allowed to stand down and return to their homes and families. Some return to their own homes which were damaged. But all do go home after serving their communities and their neighbours at no cost, at no obligation and without thought of recognition or reward.

In community after community and in country after country amateurs world-wide (who number in the millions with an estimated 265,000 hams in the U.S. and roughly 26,000 in Canada) since the early beginnings of radio have devoted their time, talent and equipment to this selfless service.

Hams help during Power Blackout

 Lessons Learned – Ministry of the Solicitor General

Oklahoma Storm City Storm Video

Canada’s Most Destructive Tornados (Amateur radio helps out in Barrie)

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