Michal Smialowski speaks into a small radio in Williams Lake: “VE7VOE, VE7SML.”
After a crackle and a small delay: “VE7SML, VE7VOE, good morning,” is the response.
“Steve, it’s Mike, how are things going in 108 this morning?”
Smialowski, known over the radio by his callsign, VE7SML, is president of the Cariboo Chilcotin Amateur Radio Society (CCARS), and was calling a friend in 108 Mile Ranch as part of an amateur radio demonstration to the Daybreak Rotary Club.
Smialowski is using a network of 13 radio repeaters and transmitters that stretches from Anahim and Tatla Lake, through Puntzi, east to Potato Mountain and south through Mount Timothy and Lime Mountain near Clinton to contact his friend. Anyone listening in on the network could pick up on the call.
CCARS incorporated in 2015. The network allows amateur radio operators to patch in their location, call out to anyone else on the network, and, if circumstances merited it, connect and extend their network north and south, even sending an e-mail via a series of connections to the U.S.
High on the tops of remote mountains, the repeaters are battery and solar powered, steadily chugging along — until they don’t.
“The equipment is getting old,” said Smialowski. “Our equipment on Vedan Mountain packed it in when we needed it the most, during the wildfires.”
A trip up to the sites is never easy, and often operators don’t know what is wrong until they get there.
That’s why, thanks to a $16,674 cheque from the Daybreak Rotary Club of Williams Lake, the CCARS is planning to do much needed upgrades to their equipment, even as they are starting partnerships with the Cariboo Regional District to formalize a partnership should another emergency arrive.
One of the recommendations in the CRD’s wildfire community consultation report was to connect with amateur (often called “ham”) radio operators to set up such a system.
“What we want to do is get prepared so that next time things will work if it is needed,” said Smialowski.
The operators have the ability to turn on connections across the province, and via digital connections can call any system around the world — as Smialowski did just for fun in a demonstration, reaching an operator in London. They can also be used in a pinch to send e-mails, as the radio connection can be beamed to Seattle or even farther where it can be turned into an e-mail.
While they didn’t need to be used during the 2017 wildfires, as traditional and commercial infrastructure hadn’t failed, they had started to collect names and information jut in case.
“Essentially, what would happen is we would have someone in the Emergency Operations Centre, and if, say, I lived near Tatla Lake, and they needed to send a message to someone in Tatla Lake or the area, they would look at their list, find out who the closest amateur radio operator was, contact them and they would be responsible for passing that message to them.”
If seemingly unorthodox, it’s a system Smialowski said is used quite commonly in the U.S. during disasters.
There is daily chatter on the network currently, said Smialowski.
He first got his amateur radio license when he lived in Smithers.
“I spent a lot of time going through back country and wanted something where I could call for help if I needed it.”
Now he said he uses it all the time. He lives in Tatlayoko with no cell service, and his wife and himself both spend copious amounts of time in the back country.
“When my wife goes out on her horse, she’s got a radio with the GPS on it so I can track where she is. I can see where she is if she gets knocked out and we can talk to each other.”
They also assist the Tatla Lake nursing station, in addition to Search and Rescue.
It’s for those reasons Daybreak Rotary picked the CCARS to receive the wildfire relief funds. The pool of money was fundraised by the Rotary District 5040, and distributed to each of the four Rotary clubs in the Cariboo to choose a deserving project. The Williams Lake Rotary Club combined the money with several other grants to offer wildfire fighting training and equipment to four rural Chilcotin communities.
“We voted on this group because of the overall impact it would have towards emergency response and emergency usage,” said Scott Tucker, a director for the club and the Sergeant at Arms.
“They have a radio with the nurse out there with her truck, so that is used on a weekly basis so it felt right in terms of communication — we heard a lot about that on Facebook and social media during the fires and evacuation so this was a perfect fit.”
Smialowski said the money is needed.
“It’s always a struggle to find funds to do this kind of thing. It means a lot to us in terms of providing the service and it’s no small undertaking to try to maintain this when something doesn’t work and it’s a lot of trouble to try to fix it. We’d rather be in a position where we don’t have to fix things.”