Served agencies in New Brunswick and neighbouring jurisdictions benefit from one of the most robust emergency communications systems in the country, thanks to decades of a close working relationship between radio amateurs and emergency managers.
History and membership
From its formation in 1974 with a few repeaters, the International Repeater Group (IRG) gained respect of government and they worked together to build a province-wide repeater system available for use of radio amateurs. It now covers almost everywhere in New Brunswick and signals reach into other bordering provinces and state of Maine. Help from provincial and federal levels with a combination of membership dues, available grants, and volunteer technical help has allowed the system to grow.
Today, the International Repeater Group is one of the largest amateur radio clubs in the Maritimes. Annual member dues of $15.00 per year help pay for IRG activities and hardware upgrades. While the system is open to all amateurs to use, members have access to the linking codes allowing them to talk across the province or throughout the Maritimes.
The IRG system now includes twenty-five (25) VHF and UHF repeaters. All the repeaters are located at secure government sites with back-up power. Repeaters are grouped into “zones” which can be linked to each other, or all at once. Linking between sites is done over a digital microwave system, no internet is required. Wide area coverage at each site ensures a good measure of overlap and redundancy if there is a hardware failure. Any IRG repeater can also be linked to most repeaters in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
The IRG took advantage of a recent revamp of the government’s digital microwave system to completely revamp our system at the same time. Through an agreement with the N.B. Emergency Measures Organization and with help of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure’s Radio Communication Branch, repeaters and controllers were updated to improve reliability, and the repeater zones were grouped to more closely match EMO’s regions.
The end result of the upgrade was a more reliable and easier to use system that still only requires a few DTMF tones to link anywhere. Not only is the IRG system used by members for casual nets and regular friendly contacts, all repeaters are tested with a weekly training net. The IRG system has become an integral part of any emergency exercise, whether operators are at an emergency operation centre, a shelter, or even at home relaying messages.
Emergencies in New Brunswick are coordinated by the Province through the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO). With almost every activation of the Provincial Emergency Operation Centre (PEOC), radio amateurs are included as part of the structure of the PEOC and amateur radio operators are also included in the Regional EOC’s to provide a vital back-up communication link. Amateurs are also often deployed to municipal EOC’s or out into the field when needed. In each case, the IRG system provides a reliable method of contact anywhere in the province.
The IRG has recently renewed formal agreements with the Province’s health authorities. Amateur radio equipment has been placed in most hospitals and at the Department of Health central office to provide back-up communications. Amateur radio is also included in the plans and exercises relating to N.B. Power’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station. The IRG system is also used to support to Environment Canada through CANWARN activations in severe weather conditions.
There are also some very active local amateur radio clubs throughout New Brunswick who also provide local EMCOMM support for municipal and regional groups, using club members and club repeaters, along with their local IRG repeaters as required.
Some recent EMCOMM activities
During the ice storm of 2017 which paralyzed communities in the north-east portion of the province with downed power and phone lines, amateurs were deployed to assist with communications. In all, amateurs were activated for 338 hours over a two-week period.
In August of 2017, two simultaneous fibre op cable breaks disrupted telephone, public service radio and internet service to wide areas of the Maritimes. Immediately, radio amateurs were on the air using the IRG system and were organizing deployment at request of EMO, ready to go where they were needed to cover any needs arising during the outage. Fortunately, phone and data services were restored within a few hours.
In the record-breaking flooding of the St. John River in early May 2018, radio operators spent a total of 436 hours over at the provincial and affected municipal EOC’s. All during this time, the IRG system remained up and ready to cover any back-up communication needs.
A win-win for everyone
Over the years, IRG radio amateurs have gained respect with served agencies, and have demonstrated that amateur radio can provide a reliable back-up to regular communication means. Users of the IRG system are familiar with how their repeaters work, and what they will do. Having a robust repeater system available to volunteer amateur radio operators “24-7-365” means that they can focus on getting the message through in emergencies.