Amateur radio operators hope phone outage is 'wake-up call'

Some amateur radio operators in Atlantic Canada are hoping the massive phone outage that hit the region Friday will inspire people to be more prepared for emergency situations.

'We're really a backup network,' says amateur radio operator Chris Vessey

Amateur radio operators in the region say they could have provided a valuable service during Friday's phone outage in Atlantic Canada. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Some amateur radio operators are hoping a massive phone outage in Atlantic Canada inspires people to be more prepared for emergency situations.

Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, uses FM frequencies to communicate with other devices without the use of landline, cell or internet services.

"We're really a backup network," said licensed radio operator Chris Vessey, who is based in Charlottetown.

"In the event of a dire emergency, we're capable of taking our equipment out, setting it up and helping authorities to communicate."

For several hours on Friday, Bell Aliant landline and cell services, as well as Telus, Virgin and Koodo users, were cut off after damage to two fibre lines. 

People from retailers to emergency responders across the region experienced a disruption in connectivity

"I was on standby," said Vessey. "If necessary, we would have rolled out some resources, some personnel to assist with communications."

'This is a wake-up call'

Vessey said all homes should have a conventional radio that doesn't rely on an Internet connection to be able to tune into news channels in the event of power disruption.

He also said he hopes more people consider getting a license to operate amateur radio, so that people have the means to communicate in all scenarios.

"This is a wake-up call ... It shows us what could happen, so I think it's a good idea for everybody to consider being ready for disaster," said Vessey.

Licensed radio operator Chris Vessey showcases a standard radio that doesn't rely on Internet connection to function. He believes every home should have one in case of emergency. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Martin Swinimer, a ham radio operator based in Western Shore, N.S., said he was surprised that emergency services didn't try to contact him to assist with communications.

He said radio operators can set up in fire departments or dispatch centres to receive a call from anyone trying to communicate on an FM frequency. 

"We're here to be utilized by fire departments, ambulances and everything else," he said. 

Ready to help

Local authorities called on amateur radio operators in other parts of Nova Scotia.

Jeremy Fowler, a member of the Halifax Amateur Radio Club, said he and other members of his group were put on standby to help the municipality cope with communications problems.

"There was a bunch of us that had pulled out our gear and were on the air, ready to go, cars loaded up and that kind of stuff," Fowler said. "At that point, everything was kind of coming online. They'd fixed whatever break there was, so they told us to stand down."

Moving forward, Swinimer and Vessey both said they would like the public be better educated on how ham radio works in the event of another phone outage or emergency situation.

With files from Ian Munroe