The Tragedy of Haiti…

And the folly of the Ontario government:

QRZ.COM shows that there were only seven licensed ham radio operators listed as residing in Haiti in 2009. Of that number, only two have been reported heard on the international amateur radio emergency aid shortwave networks. In other words, there is no wide-spread corps of trained and equipped amateur radio volunteers living in Haiti.

Fortunately, at least one cellular telephone company’s radio towers are reported to have survived mainly intact after the 7.0 earthquake. My guess is these towers were cemented on sturdy ground pads. Any cell tower mounted on any less substantial structure, including buildings of all types, likely failed due to mechanical breakage at the moment of impact. Any surviving cell systems would be extremely compromised due to huge surges in usage and failing back-up power supplies over the next 24 to 72 hours. Some satellite cellphones worked and, of course, these days because there was some cellular service that survived we got Tweets (from Twitter) and email and Facebook postings. But these communications channels are fragile and often the communications are erroneous and inaccurate.

Right now, as aid piles up at the U.S.-military run airport in Port-au-Prince there’s little understanding of the situation in country. We know that many cities are lying in ruin but we don’t know how bad (or good) the situation is on the ground. There is no way for non-governmental agencies to reach their workers. Families frantic with worry have no way of directly reaching their surviving relatives. Red Cross evacuation centres have yet to be set up and it’s here where the vast majority of registration of displaced persons takes place. (The Red Cross has the experience and infra-structure to carry out their daunting task of registering hundreds of thousands of people.) I could go on about what’s not happening but you get the point.

So what could have happened if there had been a vibrant and active amateur radio community in Haiti? In the midst of disasters, the people affected universally create their own structure. They pull each other out of rubble. They setup soup kitchens. They find ways to feed and care for the afflicted. They build structures and they wait for help. Experts say this is a way that people find meaning in their broken lives.

Please forgive me, but I’m going to be direct here. If there was a healthy active amateur radio community some of its members would have survived the disaster. Once their basic needs of survival, shelter, food and water have been met, many will also want to help their stricken communities. We’ve seen this scenario before during the Asian tsunami, Katrina and even the China earthquake last year when amateur radio operators helped out.

So how do relatively untrained hams help? Well almost all amateur radio equipment does (or can be quickly modified) to operate on 12-volts direct current. In Haiti, I bet you can find working 12-volt batteries in destroyed vehicles everywhere. A hand-held walkie-talkie type radio is capable of transmitting a signal over distances up to 20 miles and will work on a 12-volt battery for several days before it’s necessary to replace (or recharge using a generator) the battery. Shortwave equipment capable of transmitting signals over hilly and mountainous terrain around the country or around the world is owned by many (perhaps most) amateur radio operators. Most of this equipment can again run off 12-volt supplies and much of this equipment is smaller than a toaster oven. It’s portable and doesn’t require any better antenna than 60 feet of wire hung in a tree.

As trained amateur radio operators set-up ham radio emergency traffic networks starting with the non-governmental agencies like the Red Cross (which Canadian hams have a formal agreement to help in times of need) or the Salvation Army (which already runs an international emergency ham radio network called  SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network), the non-trained volunteers can be accommodated and welcomed into the network. These volunteers are already on the air in their own affected communities and are getting training on-the-job as they participate in helping their own communities rebuild. (The Amateur Radio Emergency Service in both the U.S. and Canada provides ongoing training and is a very popular aspect of amateur radio.) As the situation stabilizes, more amateur radio networks can be setup linking hospitals, ambulance and fire stations, police detachments, civic authorities (all of which have had catastrophic communications failure)  and other key agencies including the Red Cross evacuation and registration centres.

The amateur radio networks can exist for weeks without any outside aid or attention. The networks are flexible in that any licensed ham can participate. They are not dependent on anything but a cadre of large numbers of volunteers able to help.

In Haiti, as I said, there were seven hams registered in online documentation. Of that number, two, one of which was with a religious group serving the people of Haiti, got on the air. Amateurs from other countries have attempted to enter Haiti but were turned back because the situation is still too unstable. And so we are left waiting for the “authorities” to reach the afflicted in country.

What could happen if a similar disaster were to strike, let’s say, southern Ontario? How about a big, big ice storm? How about a nuclear meltdown (Chernobyl)? The list goes on.

In Ontario, we have around 5,000 licensed hams. Let’s say half of that number are active. Maybe all they do is talk on their two-way radios on the way to work? Maybe they get on when there’s special event or a contest (there are contests every weekend)? The point is they already live here. They have sophisticated equipment that’s simple to run. They can help provide communications infrastructure where none exists.

Our sister association, the American Radio Relay League representing over 250,000 U.S. hams, had a slogan they use to describe how amateur radio helps. It was “WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS.” That says it all. When thousands of buildings fall down, when the death toll may exceed 100,000, when government and ALL ELSE FAILS the one thing that’s left is the survivors. Some of those survivors here in Ontario will be amateur radio operators who, once they’ve met their own basic needs, will be ready to help and save lives.

So why the folly of Ontario government?

Because the Ontario government, in its wisdom has banned the use of all hand-held devices while driving. This is a good thing and we approve of it.  The enforcement section of Bill 118 begins in February. We believe Bill 118 will make our roads safer.  Canadian-licensed amateur radio operators have a three-year time-limited exception. (And rightfully so. There is no evidence whatsoever that the use of a two-way radio in anyway is a distraction in the same way as using a cellular telephone. Many US states and Canadian provinces have granted blanked exemptions to their amateur radio communities.)

In order to encourage the growth of amateur radio in Ontario and to assist the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, the exemption on the use of amateur radio use of hand-held microphones should be made permanent. Now that we have a new minister of transportation in Ontario (as of yesterday), we see an opportunity for the Ontario government to do the right thing.

4 Responses to “The Tragedy of Haiti…”

  • Hi Peter,

    You are on the right track. I believe that RAC should approach the new Minister of Transportation on behalf of Ontario’s Amateur Radio Operators and ask that the 3-year exemption be re-visited, in light of our role in emergency communications.

    Actually, the text of your post today could form the basis for a comprehensive letter to get the ball rolling. Well done.

    Joe, VE3LNU

  • Inlight of the distaster now seen in Hati, it strenghthens my commitment on retaining the use of our standard (wired in) hand-held mikes in mobile use, specially during times of disaster. Villages beyond the large cities of Hati, can’t get communications out to get the help they so greatly need right now, because either all normal communications they once had is down, and not operating, or their village has never had an amateur living with ham equipment within their areas. Mobile 2-way radios will have to do that task, along with temperary base stations setup in each village, till normal communications are established, or restored. I say, where in the world would you find batteries for a Bluetooth device, in all the carnage, and distruction that has taken place down there, just to keep a bluetooth device operating, simply because the government down there saw fit to employ the same “hands free” laws, as the Ontario Government is impossing on us right now in Bill 118. We seem to live in an area that dosn’t have the same type of distuctions Hati has had, but this past week, a few fellows were sentenced to prision for making explosive devices, that could have made a huge distaster here in Ontario, specially Toronto. If they had not been caught before they did their deeds, we could have been looking at a huge loss of life, as well as lost communications throughout Ontario, and maybe farther. Phone, internet, police, ambualnce, and fire communictaions could have all been completely shut down, leaving only ham operators to take up the cause in their place. They had the CN Tower on their priority list of distruction, where alot of communications pass through daily. Bluetooth devices would be completely useless in a very short time, due to their limited battery power life. If carnage such as that seen in Hati, happened here in Ontario, just where would we find replacement batteries to operate a Bluetooth device, to save a person’s life that’s hanging by a thin thread, simply because our batteries have run down, and we can’t transmit the need for urgent help. This alone should have us pushing hard for a change in Bill 118, and have amateur radio totally exempted in Ontario, and for that matter straight across Canada, when it comes to using a push to talk hand held mike. Peter is right. We need to keep fighting Queen’s Park, and Bill 118, and have it overturned, to allow us to remain using our stardard mikes of today. Keep Bugging your MPP’s with emails, till they finally give up and change Bill 118, and allow us full exemption in that Bill. This is not the time for us to sit on our butts, thinking others will do the job for you. If you want exempted from Bill 118, then give all you can, and more, in making it come about. 73 Best of luck … Wayne

  • If a catastrophic event such as happened in Haiti were to occur in Ontario then I would think the last thing on a police officer’s mind would be issuing tickets to a ham NOT using hands-free on his mobile rig! The public relations disaster that would occur if such a thing happened would not be worth the revenue. Could you imagine the media headline: “Local ham given ticket for using wrong microphone while aiding Red Cross in disaster”???
    I am wondering, though, if we are losing sight of the total picture here. Bill 118 does not take away our right to operate mobile; what it is doing is implementing a law that, in the end, makes it potentially safer to operate mobile! In my mind it HAS to be safer to have two hands on the wheel rather than having one clutching a microphone. The only immediate drawback I see is the inability to access certain radio functions by means of buttons on the microphone – for example, memory channels. I believe the “Talksafe” interface box available from the UK has recently been modified to allow a regular mic to be connected in parallel with the Bluetooth headset to accommodate such situations. To that end the three-year exemption for the development of suitable technology is a good compromise.
    I believe that the overriding aim has to be improving road safety whilst still permitting enjoyment of our hobby. Replacing a hand-held mic with Bluetooth or even a mic on a boom is not such a big deal if it aids in that respect.

  • bill 118 DOES take away MY right to use MY mobile radio ! it works “perfectly” without any attachments of any kind . i need not be fumbling with dead battery bluetooths or any other nonsense device nor do i have the “funds” to purchase any un-necessary devices .

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