The Challenges Facing Ham Radio During A Search & Rescue Operation
On this episode of the last wire podcast, we’ll be talking about the missing cowboy Ben Tyner, and the role that amateur radio played in a search effort. Ben Tyner, a Wyoming cowboy last seen riding into the mountains of British Columbia, Canada on January 26, 2019, as a working cowboy, he vanished from the merit area and his abandoned horse was found fully saddled on the forest service road, Northwest of the city.
Two days later, an extensive search by volunteers and pleas on foot horseback in helicopters and Len snowmobiles found no trace. This region presented some communication challenges that had the potential to delay search efforts. Thanks to local hams. This issue was addressed. We’re now joined with Victor echo seven Foxtrot Sierra Romeo.
Welcome to the show miles. Thanks, John. I’m glad to be here. Muskie, take us back to January and how you got involved in the search effort as an amateur radio operator. Sure. Yeah. In January 2019, I got I received a phone call from one of the emergency managers here at emergency management that you see in Kamloops saying that they had an active search and rescue operation ongoing for a missing cowboy and that the search and rescue groups were having a really hard time with communications.
And could I, you know, could I go out and see what we could do to. You know, to help out. So it was just, I live in Kamloops, so it was centred in merit, which is about, you know, 40, 45 minutes South of Kamloops. I jumped in my personal vehicle, which if any of your listeners go to QRZ.com and look up my page, you’ll see my crazy vehicle, which I’ve, I’ve set up to be kind of a mobile emergency management BC radio room.
So it’s quite the eyesore from an antenna perspective, but it does allow me everything that I need to do for, EMDC versus one of the interesting government-issue vehicles that are less You know, less well equipped. So that’s typically why I take my vehicle, but I arrived on the scene, which was it was in a fairly mountainous area, just sort of North, I guess it would be pretty much North of merit and very kind of rugged terrain, very remote in the sense that, you know, there are a few logging roads, but you know, there’s, you know, there’s no power, there are no people that live up there.
And you know, and this was January, so, you know, lots of snow. And when I arrived and found the SAR command truck, it was in this little Valley with a tiny little clearing. And I learned later that they had picked it because it was flat and they, it was basically for access for helicopters.
You know, there was a good landing pad, you know, safe landing access for helicopters. And, and it was also, you know reasonably close for. It was a good parking area. It was, it was a good place to locate from the ease of perspective for helicopters landing and people parking and, you know, embarking and debarking and stuff like that.
But it wasn’t a terrible place from a radio perspective. And what the search and rescue folks had discovered was that you know, they were basically in a hard place to describe for listeners, but if you imagine, if you put three, three mountains in kind of an equal. Equal lateral triangle.
And then you dropped the star truck in the middle. That’s where it was. And the searchers were all on the slopes on the other sides. That was where the evidence was, where you know, they were looking for the cowboy. And so obviously, you know, for your listeners simplex communications, weren’t going to work.
And so one of the. Questions that, you know, they had was could we use amateur radio communication? But unfortunately the location of the, you know, the local amateur repeaters was such that it wouldn’t work either. So and I think I mentioned this earlier than, you know, one of the things I think is a real value for.
I’m sure volunteers are their ability to as good communicators to kind of understand you know, how that works, especially for people that are, you know, aren’t communications people. You know, they’re used to their cell phones working all the time and there’s suddenly someplace where they don’t work.
And so one of the things that had been suggested when I was sent out was that someone had said that the SAR groups had. Portable repeaters that could be put up on the top of these, you know, these peaks that were around the SAR truck, and that would allow you know, the SAR command truck to talk, you know, would repeat up to the top of the Hill on the search and rescue, you know, temporary, portable repeater, and then down to the search people on the other side.
The problem with that is its wintertime. And none of those mountain tops had any kind of road access. And so again, being wintertime, solar to keep those repeaters running, isn’t really a great option because, you know, the day length is really short. The weather’s nasty, that would’ve meant flying the portable repeaters, which we had.
You know, we had three of them. You know, we would have had to equip a generator with each one. And so I, I sat in the, in the SARC. Command truck with the search leader. And I, I talked to them and I said, Hey, you know yes, I know you guys want to put up these portable repeaters, but here’s the reality, you know, we’ve got very short day lengths.
We’re going to have to be using the RCMP helicopter cause that was, you know, that was there to help search for the missing cowboy. You know, we’re going to be using that twice a day to fly to each of these mountain tops to take a volunteer who otherwise would be searching. You know, up to the top of the Hill to cert, you know, check on the repeater, add fuel to the generator and make sure it was working.
You know, and that’s going to take, you know, Probably I don’t, I’m not a helicopter pilot, but a couple of hours probably to do each you know, site twice a day. So, you know, you figure that somewhere four to six hours a day, that, that in daylight, maybe that, that helicopter is not flying to be looking for the missing person.
I thought that wasn’t a really wise use of. You know, both the communications technology has that disposal, but also the search and rescue assets that we had at our disposal. And one of the things, you know, through my networks, because I’m you know, I’m a, I’m a nutty Hamm and communications really excite me.
I mean, I know lots of people in the commercial space. And so one of the things I knew was that one of the commercial companies had actually had a commercial repeater. On a, on a nearby mountain top that was actually higher than all the ones that we were in. And so I reached out to them and said, Hey you know, could we use your commercial repeater, which was just outside merit in a high elevation site.
And I told him about the search and everything. They said. Absolutely. The problem we had was, of course, all the SAR people have. Search and rescue frequencies in their radios. Barely be very problematic to suddenly try and reprogram dozens of radios. But it turns out the company not only had access to the repeater but also had dozens and dozens of radios pre-programmed and ready to go.
So I made the recommendation to the SAR team leader that you know, we. You know, we, we, we do it this way. And they requested emergency management, BC emergency manager, BC checked with me and I said, yep, I support this. And you know, a resource request went out and within a couple of hours, we had enough portable radios.
We, we worked with SAR teams to, you know, educate them. No, the team members on the radios are very similar to what they were using already. So it wasn’t a big deal. We just basically equipped everyone with radios. We had big banks at chargers there for folks. And that was basically, we were able to, you know, get effective communications between the people on the ground, back to the star Trek.
There was also a. A secondary command post had been set up at the Marriott airport. Just because they, you know, they ran out of space, you know, the number of people, they ran out of space out in the field next to the SAR truck. So that was the first, that was the first piece. John, where are we?
You know, we basically, the urgent need was to get the SAR teams who are out in the field, you know, both for safety so that you know, they didn’t want somebody getting lost, but also to be able to, you know, to, to make that communication between the SAR teams and the SART command truck. And then the second piece was the SAR truck was command center truck was having a hard time getting.
Communication back and forth to emergency management. Do you see? So the second piece I did similar to the other story that I shared with you in 2017 is I used our our LTE. You know, go kit as we talked about. So ENPC now has a LTE go kits. I brought one of those out set up the tripod, the mast and then was able to provide the SAR truck with.
High-speed data communication. So they were able to make telephone calls and, and had internet access and stuff. So they could get back to the provincial regional emergency operation center. So, so that was my, my role in, in 2019 with the cowboy. Again, it, in a sense, it wasn’t You know, pure ham radio in a sense.
But you know, I was using all my skills as a, as an amateur to be able to provide that You know that recommendation to the decision-makers on, on what to do. And one of the things, you know I’m very, I’m very proud about that because we were able to keep that helicopter flying, looking for the fellow and not having it scooting back and forth, you know, providing, you know, fuel to generate.
So I, I think for me, that was one of the big takeaways from that example is you know, as a, as an effective communicator and, and able to, you know you know, take that information, synthesize it, and then pass it back to the decision-makers. You know, we were able to, you know, collectively make very good use of the resources available and keep those focused on looking for the fellow.
Being a ham operator, more than just passing messages back and forth, setting up critical communication infrastructure. It’s been the critical thinker. And I think this story reflects that they want your expertise on this mountain, not just your equipment. What are some lessons you learned and how did you think out of the box as a ham operator?
Yeah. And I think, you know, like doc to me, I think is a key that I’ve learned is, you know, as a hand volunteer for an emergency organization you know, you’ll often get the call that says, Hey, I need you to go and do this. And I think the thing I always tell them, People that work with me is, you know, like, you know, your answer is, yes, I’ll be right there.
But you know, the the, you know, the first thing you want to do when you get to wherever your task is, is, you know, look around, ask questions, figure out what’s going on. Don’t just go on. You know, as I say, you know, it was kind of like for me, it was like, Hey, we need you to go out and, you know, set up these portable repeaters because the SAR guys have them.
And I could have done that. I could have just gone out and said, okay, let’s, you know, I love to fly in a helicopter. It’s fun. You know, take me to the top of the mountain. We’ll set up this portable repeater, fire up the generator, but You know, I think as a communicator, you know, I looked at the whole situation and said you know, okay, what, what do we need to do here?
What are the potential resources we had? And I looked at everything from, you know, what we had is hams, you know? So the local radio clubs, what repeaters do we have? You know, what frequency is the other on? Where are they located? You know like, and I’m sure some of your listeners are familiar with some of the tools now online that amateur clubs use to plot, you know, their repeaters and I’m taking the things tools like radio mobile, where people will go in and say, okay, well, we’re going to put a.
You know, radio on ABC Hill and it’s going to be on one, four, seven, three, two, and it’s going to be 50 Watts, and it’s going to use a five DB gain antenna. And what’s our coverage pattern going to look like, you know, who’s going to be able to use a repeater. Well, As amateurs working for public service organizations, we, you know, we can use those same tools.
So you know, if you have time, for example, you can say, Oh, Hey, well, if you were going to put up a portable repeater here, would it work for what you need to do? That’s the kind of stuff that I think has hams where you have that. That knowledge is a communicator and all your smarts to be able to say, okay, well this work or, or for example, like we often see here in British Columbia because of our, our mountain is trained that, you know, HF communication using NVIS antennas can be extremely effective.
You know, at all times of the day, Over distances that, you know, VHF, repeaters don’t work. So we have, you know, we have HF and our go kits rate, so we can set up and BIS antennas. And I’m sure it’s not, you know, it’s maybe using wind link, which is you know, smaller email messages or voice communication.
But again, it’s that ability as a ham to say, okay, what’s in my toolkit. What’s my problem. How do I best solve it? And then take that, you know, take that information back to the. You know, the emergency management decision-makers and say, okay, this is what, this is what I recommend. This is going to be most effective for the problem that you have right here.
What’s some advice you can offer new hams or people that are thinking of getting into amateur radio from an emergency communication perspective. Where do they start? What do you think they need to focus on for hams that are looking to get. Involved or volunteer with emergency organizations, you know, take, take as much training as you can most, you know, most I’m sure most local governments.
Certainly most provincial governments, you know, have training programs like here in BC, You know, we have a very well-developed program. And so get yourself familiar with how emergency operation centers work. You know, how the decision-making process works participate in exercises because you’re going to find yourself in.
And again, as I might, you know, for the listeners that might’ve seemed, Oh, you know, miles was very calm about describing what was going on with the search for the cowboy. But I can tell you that that was all happening in kind of an information vacuum in a panic. You know, it would have been very easy for me to just, you know, as you said earlier, you know, to just grab that portable repeater and jump in the helicopter and fly to the top of the Hill.
And, and so I think, you know, it’s really good for. Hams that want to get involved in, you know, get some practice so that when you do get thrown into those situations you can kind of keep your wits about you and, and, you know, think through stuff and make those, you know, make that analysis and that critical decision to make those recommendations.
Cause that’s, that’s your super value for emergency organizations, right. Is to be able to. You know, help them be effective. Right. You know, that, like, as I said, you know, if you know that you’re not going to, you know, sending out somebody with a VHF radio, isn’t going to work, that you really need to take a deployable HF kit because that, you know, given your area, you know, and, and this is what I tell amateurs here in BC, you know, I say to people, you know, practice with wind link, Every, you know, throughout the day in the evenings, different times of year, so that you know, that, you know, you know, maybe 40 meters only works certain times a day at certain times a year.
So, you know, cause what happens again is I think as humans, we get into a rut. And so for example, in BC here with the emergency manager, we see all of our volunteers Wednesday night is our, you know, our practice night, right? Where we all. You know, barring COVID we would get together, you know, in the radio room, we do a bunch of practice and stuff it’s always on Wednesday night.
Right. So what I’ve found is some of our volunteers you know, they’re always like, Oh yes, you know, 80 meters works great all the time. Because they’re only in a Wednesday night. But then they try and use it during the day on a. Friday when they get called out and they were like, well, it’s not working.
Why is that? So yeah, I’m always reminding people to you know, they don’t, you know, NBC doesn’t mind, you know, you can come as a volunteer, you can come down at the radio room anytime they’re open. So, you know, come in and practice at different times so that you’re Know, so that you basically, as an amateur radio volunteer, you have this broad experience and knowledge set to draw on so that when you’re asked to provide those recommendations, you can be really, no, I agree.
100% before we wrap up what was the final outcome for the search? Unfortunately, he was not found it has not been found to date. The latest information I have is that they suspect it was foul play, but I understand it’s still an active investigation. So it’s, it’s it’s really unfortunate, John, but I will say it was a tremendous effort by everyone involved and you know, a huge number of SAR teams came out and RCP and everyone.
So yeah. A huge, huge effort was made. It’s unfortunate. Didn’t have a positive outcome. That’s very unfortunate, but I really appreciate you coming on the show and I hope to have you on again, one more time, have a great day. Yeah. Thank you. And, and you know, feel, feel free to share with your listeners.
If they want my contact information, I’m always happy to you know, chat about my experiences. Cause I really do believe that amateur radio operators have a lot to offer to ours, our public service agencies. You’ve been listening to Victor echo seven Foxtrot Sierra Romeo miles. Thank you for coming on the show.
I appreciate you taking the time to share with us your experience with ham radio and emergency communications to our listeners. I’m your host, John Bignell This is another episode, the last wire podcast.