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In the summer of 2003, British Columbia experienced extended
drought conditions combined with hot weather. As well, the
forests of the interior had been devastated by pine beetles
which had left thousands of acres of dead trees across the

Although forest fires are a constant problem in any forested
state or province, the fires of 2003 proved to be particularly
destructive. Entire towns disappeared and thousands of people
were forced out of homes in multiple evacuations. Amateur
radio played an important role in the evacuations and disaster

The fires escalated until the village of Louis Creek was burnt
from the map and the fire burned right through the town of
Barriere. Then, on a Friday night, the firestorm moved right into
the City of Kelowna forcing the evacuation of 30,000 people –
some with only two or three minutes notice. Over 50,000
people were evacuated in the interior fires.

Two months after the fires, amateur radio operators from the
Vancouver region gathered to review the response and the
lessons learned from some of the key players. A panel was put
together featuring Gord Hawkey (VE7GFH – the Kelowna
Amateur Communications Coordinator), Carl Bertholm
(VE7CLC      –     Central  Okanagan       Region    Amateur
Commmunicaitons Coordinator), Ken McEachern (VE7EFL –
the Kamloops Radio Emergency Coordinator) and Paulette
Schouten (VE7VPE – President of Vancouver’s VECTOR

These are the notes taken during their presentations to over
100 hams from the Vancouver region. As the notes were
cribbed during the presentation, they may not be an exact
reflection of what was said, but the intent was to be true to the
points the speakers were trying to make. Two different copies
of the notes were combined to increase the accuracy. The
notes are not in the exact order as presented in order to reduce
some of the jumping back and forth that was done during the

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Where were you guys on Jul;y 16 ? [We could have used you!]

We were lucky because we had a couple of small incidents
which gave us preparation for what was to come. On July 16
the region was put on standby because of the first fire. In the
end, there were 8 major evacuations / incidents over a period of
two months. As the fires progressed, we were able to alert
other groups from the valley.

Ken was notified and he had 20 amateurs to run the PREOC
(Provincial Regional Emergency Operations Centre). These
amateurs were solely for the PREOC.

One of the lessons learned was it was the old operators who
answered the bell. They can’t run around the block, but they
can definitely do communications.

Ken’s regional manager had put him on alert for the PREOC for
the fires in Osoyoos [in the southern Okanagan]. Then the
message changed from being on alert to activation – the station
must be up and running by 7:00 A.M.

Already, cell phones did not work. Cell phones were given by
the phone company to Emergency Social Services, but the
phones didn’t always work.

Next came the evacuation of 1500 people in Kamloops. We
thought that was bad but it soon grew as 3000 people had to be
evacuated from Barriere.

At this point they talked to Norm, the Kelowna Emergency
Coordinator. Kelowna called in all their amateurs.

All amateurs had their place to go. Preplanning was critical.
You can train to a certain extent, but then it all has to work [all
at once] and you have to work as a group. For example,
Kelowna had 49 people doing communications for 12 days.
You need lots of people all working together. Over 2 months,
140 amateurs were used – mostly using their own equipment.

It takes a LOT of preplanning to coordinate that type of
response. Amateurs don’t always like to attend non-club
meetings (meetings with ESS and other agencies).

One of the problems was calling in additional amateurs.
Emergency Social Services [volunteers running the evacuation
centres] and Search & Rescue can call on any additional

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assistance in the province. But amateur radio can’t call out
others – it had never been done before so there was no
procedure. As a result, the Kelowna amateurs had to tell ESS
who had to tell the PREOC who then contacted the Provincial
Emergency Program to make the request. This took hours!

Amateur repeaters stayed up and running. In Barriere, the
phone lines were down, power lines were down and the cell
phones were out. Amateur radio still worked. In Penticton, the
main power for the city was lost for 4 hours. We were lucky
because the main amateur repeater was in a cement block
building. Other sites and other repeaters went down but
amateur radio stayed up.

At the PREOC (Provincial Regional Emergency Operations
Centre) we had up to 85 different people all at once. Everyone
was using cell phones, land lines, and computers all at once.
For ourselves we had up to three channels going on the radios
at once.

We used five hour shifts as that was all the older hams could

We haven’t had a lot of credit from the press for what we did,
but we did do a good job.

I was actually on holidays when the fire started in Kelowna on
the Friday. By Sunday the club had been called in to start
communications. We have 40 people on our list – about 30%
were able to respond in one hour.

I got back to town on Tuesday when it started to pick up. Then
it was eight days without a break and 10 to 12 hours a day.

One of the key points was the acceptance of amateur radio by
other agencies. We were treated like equals and given the run
of the EOC.

The Friday night firestorm was extremely stressful and we were
running short of resources with 48 amateurs in use. Norm
Barton, VE7BZC was the coordinator for Kelowna. Together
they put together a package for accepting assistance from the

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Vancouver (VECTOR) volunteers. Carl was asked to be liaison
with VECTOR.

The VECTOR amateurs arrived at 2:00 in the morning. They
had to be greeted and oriented and then into the hotel. At 7:00
A.M. they were on duty.

The schedule was 6 hours operating, then 6 hours off. It quickly
became apparent that the schedule was 8 on and 4 off as it
took an hour to come in and get set up and at least an hour
after the shift to hand over and leave off. This was a hard pace
but it was the way it worked out.

The equipment worked well.        Carl hadn’t had a formal
messaging course before doing all the messaging. In about 15
minutes he became an expert!

Things started in Kelowna on a Wednesday.

We had one reception centre, but at the height of the firestorm,
we had 4 different reception centres operating; the Recreation
Center [the main evacuation centre}, Kelowna Secondary
School, the Baptist Church, and the Arena.

We had to have radio links to all four reception centres. A
common repeater was used. We also had links to the hospital
administration, the hospital itself, and the Cranbrook hospital.
These were all at the request of the hospitals. This was only in
case things got worse.

We also had links set up with Penticton and the City of Vernon
which was handling the Falkland fire. At the height we had
seven stations on the air.

In addition, we had a temporary communications link to
sumerland as well as a link from the EOC in Kelowna and the
Fire Incident Commander in the field. A VHF and UHF link to
Kamloops was used to keep in contact with the situation in
Kamloops and to provide situation reports.

Earlier in the year, we had given a messaging course for 25
hams. As well, there had been four or five tabletop exercises
run. This was a great opportunity to meet the key agencies
such as ESS, PEP, the RCMP, EHS [Ambulance Service] and

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other groups. This came into play during the evacuation
because you walked into the EOC and knew many of the
people by their first name.

People had to park their egos at the door. There was no ego
being shown the whole time and everyone pulled together. One
of the contributing reasons why people worked well together
was because people had met before.

Staffing was a problem with VECTOR coming up. 6 on and 6
off didn’t work and we don’t recommend it for the future. 6 on
and 12 hours off would have worked better. Even 6 on for
some of the older hams was pushing it. I recognize now that
there is certainly room for improvement the way the shift
scheduling was done.

Staffing was done by trying to slot people to take additional
shifts as they came off their shift. This was done because it
was the easiest!     They were there and you needed a
commitment. It was easier than trying to find the less used
amateurs. But less used amateurs would have been better
because they were fresher, but the reality is – you see Joe
coming off shift and you grab him and make him commit for

Ken mentioned that amateur radio had never been called up
through the Provincial Emergency Program before.      This
required Amateur Radio to jump through several hoops which
delayed the response.

A key learning was that relief crews and scheduling breaks is a
huge item. It is more than huge – getting relief and taking
breaks is critical. It is way more important than amateurs

Burnout and stress meant that EVERY leader had to have an
alternate. You walk into the EOC and you could immediately
tell that the amateurs were burnt out.

One of the biggest compliments was “You couldn’t tell where
Kelowna left off and VECTOR took over”. The transition was
relatively seemless, especially due to common training.
VECTOR had had the same messaging course as Kelowna.

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Training needs to be done much further than just messaging.
Amateurs have to know the Incident Command System (ICS or
in BC it is referred to as BCERMS). ICS is a critical training
element. You need common terminology. You need to know
how the EOC works and how we fit in so you can walk right into
the role.

Q: What was the response from hams not normally
involved with emergencies?
A: About half of the amateurs who participated in the response
were not part of the emergency program. They tended to be
put into hospitals and reception centres.

Q: Did you have a formal callout list?
A: We had a formal list. As well, the local repeater was well-
known as the first to monitor. Lots of amateurs came out of the
woodwork and checked in on the repeater. As an additional
note, a video of the Salmon Arm fires (two years previous) was
being shown to a group of 15 amateurs involved with
emergency communications. The Osooyos alert came in during
the presentation! All were trained in packet and messaging.

Q: Were the links that were set up to other cities new or
existing links?
A: They were existing links.

Q: With EOC people actually filling out the message forms,
with people like the fire chief or police who have no
training, was there difficulty filling out the forms?
A: They didn’t want to fill out the peripheral parts but the main
text of the message was always 100% correct and they were
very succint in what they wanted to say. There was one that
was 78 words long, so there were a few problems. Generally
most of the messages were with ESS folks and there is some
training to do there.

Q: Could you give a quick rundown of the hardware that
was in place versus the hardware that was needed to be
put in place.
A: We had the main EOC, the #1 firehall, with a room that was
setup with 3 VHF radios. Additional radios were personal gear
from the amateurs. The EOC and PREOC have permanent
equipment, with VHF, commercial, HF and packet and our guys
are trained on it.

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Q: Why was getting extra hams in so hard to get approval
from Victoria?
A: Precendence had to be set. The request had to go up the
ladder and it took a few hours. PEP now realizes that amateurs
need back-up just like ESS and SAR. Out of about 400
registered amateurs in Kelowna, only 40 will respond. It took
several hours to get the request up the ladder. In the past,
amateurs were all from within the area and there was no need
to bring others in.
A: (From Aja Norgaard-Gron VA7QV with PEP) Payment was
not a problem. The actual delay was from needing a formal
request put in to get the help. We didn’t want to send 12
amateurs up there and find that no-one wanted them. Informal
discussions had been held, but Victoria had to wait until an
official request was made. Ever since 9/11, everyone knows
that phones die and the PEP realizes amateur radio is a key
element to any major response.
A: VECTOR was activated because it is one of the most active
clubs and AJ Bryan and Aja (both from PEP / PERCS) knew the
VECTOR capabilities. As well, Surrey was getting geared up to
handle the Boston Bar fire, Victoria was being held back due to
the fire threat on the island, other interior amateurs were being
held for the fire in Cranbrook and North Shore was on a quiet
activation for the north Vancouver (due to the fire at Cypress for
example) – all of which threatened the province with further
severe interface fires.

Q: Was line-load used to give priority to emergency
A: No! It was quickly realized that with so many people using
their own phones and the phone companies donating literally
bags of cell phones for reception centre use, invoking line-load
control on the phone system would have shut down all the
phones that were being used to help! Even the EOC had banks
of temporary phones.

Q: With all the communications being used, did you have
any problem with intermod?
A: We did have some intermod on the repeater. We put a
subaudible tone in and took the problem away. At the PREOC,
we had put in a new tower and even with three repeaters all
working at once, we had 3 spaced out antennas and 2 of the
repeaters working on low power. At once point we had 4
repeaters working at the same time!

Q: Did you use HF?
A: We did try setting up an HF station, but it didn’t work
because the other communications overloaded the set and put
traffic over the Public Address system at the firehall!

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Q: What was the strongest lesson you learned?
A: Paulette – make sure you plan for a relief crew early!
A: Ken – We must SELL amateur radio to the other agencies
such as first aid, Salvation Army, the church groups and other
Non-Government Agencies. Amateurs are not salespeople and
we don’t sell our capabilities.
A: Gord – The ability of amateurs and communities to work
together. Amateur radio has been enhanced ten-fold just by
this fire alone. Everyone who participated in the fire raves
about amateur radio. We did a good job but we don’t go out to
get the PR that amateur radio deserves. We do about 7 to 10
community events a year so people know us.
A: Staffing multiple locations – amateurs are comfortable
leaving their equipment behind for others to use. We have to
find money to buy club stations for this type of situation. We are
lucky because we have a City Counselor who is also a ham.
Fundraising is an exercise.       As well, once you get the
equipment, you have to maintain it.

Q: 50% of the amateurs were not trained volunteers. How
were they incorporated?
A: Some were previous club members or from other clubs. All
performed well. Almost all had participated in public events and
had some experience with emergency style communications.
We knew all of them, which made it easier.

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