COBBLE HILL, B.C. - When every way of communicating was cut off during an earthquake exercise on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, amateur radio operators were the first to step in with a call for help to the outside world.
Telephone lines, cellular and wireless communications were knocked out in the simulated scenario, but volunteer ham radio operators managed to contact a Canadian Forces long-range patrol aircraft flying over the Rockies to broadcast rescue information.
"There's the old amateur radio saying that when everything else fails, there's amateur radio," said Steve Bradshaw, president of the Cowichan Valley Amateur Radio Society, who participated in the $1.2 million government exercise earlier this month with about a dozen other radio operators.
Naomi Yamamoto, B.C.'s emergency preparedness minister, said the operators made history by communicating directly with the Canadian Forces aircraft on amateur radio frequencies. She said the radio volunteers proved their worth as a vital lifeline during a disaster.
"If there is an emergency, the only communication may be these amateur radio guys," said Yamamoto. "All I know is that if they weren't there for that first hour, we would be behind the eight ball. We wouldn't know what happened to Port Alberni or the west coast of Vancouver Island."
Exercise Coastal Response was based on a scenario where a magnitude 9 earthquake, followed by at least two tsunami waves, struck Port Alberni, a coastal community of about 18,000 people, 200 kilometres northwest of Victoria.
More than 60 different organizations and 600 people participated in the three-day exercise, including Emergency Management BC, the RCMP, Salvation Army, Red Cross, coast guard, First Nations and the volunteer radio operators.
A special effects company was hired to produce disaster scenes.
Port Alberni was the site of a devastating tsunami 52 years ago after a magnitude 9.2 earthquake off Alaska. Two waves gathered force as they funnelled up Alberni Inlet in March 1964, hitting the city with forces that swept away houses and vehicles, but caused no deaths.
Bradshaw said the radio operators set up a self-contained communications system to broadcast and receive messages during the exercise. He downplayed the contact with the military aircraft in an interview inside the society's mobile command trailer parked at his home just north of Victoria, saying amateur radio is always there when disasters occur.
"The uniqueness of this trailer and its mobile nature, as well as the training our members do, is we can communicate anywhere in the world at any time," said Bradshaw. "Roads have to be available. But we also have portable units we can put on our back in a backpack and do it that way."
The mobile unit is stocked with supplies and enough food and fuel for about a week.
He said amateur radio operators helped guide rescue crews to people stranded on their rooftops after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Amateur radio also played a vital role after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries.
Paul Peters, emergency telecommunications co-ordinator for the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said amateur radio operators working with the military marked a historic achievement.
"The gold here is amateur radio and the military communicated just like they would in a real honest-to-goodness 9 catastrophic earthquake," said Peters, who is also an amateur radio operator. "It was a first for amateur radio, which is 103 years old in Canada."
There are about 70,000 such licensed operators across Canada and Peters said the hobby is experiencing a revival. "No, it's not a dying breed, if anything it's realizing a resurgence."