Volunteer honoured for lifetime service

Ron Essex put his radio skills to use in emergency communications

Ron Essex Public Safety Lifeline Volunteer Award, lifetime achievement award from Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo on Friday, March 17. -Image Credit: Jim Elliot/Salmon Arm Observer

Ron Essex has been hamming it up for 24 years.

Already the recipient of several awards, his longstanding commitment and service through amateur radio clubs have earned him provincial recognition with a Public Safety Lifeline Volunteer Award Lifetime Achievement award from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

After earning his Basic Qualification in Amateur Radio in 1993, Essex joined the Shuswap Amateur Radio Club (SARC) and the Salmon Arm Seniors Radio Club.

He has been part of every emergency for which the clubs have provided communications since that time.

In June 1998, Essex retired after 35 years of teaching in the public school system, the last 31 years as teacher-librarian in what was then Shuswap Junior Secondary.

The following month, SARC demonstrated packet radio, a form of packet switching technology used to transmit digital data via radio or wireless communications links, to then Shuswap Emergency Program co-ordinator Gordon Pelletier.

“Gordon asked for and received assurance that SARC would be willing to assist the program in any future emergencies.” Essex says.

The call for help came sooner than anyone expected with the July 29 ignition of the Silver Creek fire on Fly Hills.

During the time the emergency operation centre was active in the firehall #3, Essex worked all 16 days with amateur-radio backup communications to Kamloops by way of a repeater on Granite Peak linked to another repeater on Greenstone Mountain and from there to the amateurs working in the radio room in the Provincial Regional Emergency Operations Centre.

“The evacuation was freaky; the whole thing was a big blur,” he says of what was B.C.’s largest evacuation. “In addition to the radio work, I worked the public information phone lines, something that is now a Red Cross function from the Coast.”

The incident command system was just emerging and Pelletier had begun to put it into place in the Shuswap.

“He was the first paid (emergency) co-ordinator and I had a great deal of faith in his judgment and skill,” Essex says. “Our program has been held up as a model.”

Essex says 2003 also stands out in his mind as “very interesting,” with three challenges – a fire in Sicamous with an EOC set up in the community arena, the Falkland Cedar Hills fire in August, followed closely by the McGillivray fire towards Chase.

One of his memories of the Sicamous fire was that the EOC was set up across the highway from a miner who apparently had explosives stored in his home.

“Because the initial response in 1998 was lukewarm, they attacked the Sicamous fire very vigorously,” Essex says, noting the Falkland Cedar Hills fire was also interesting as part of the fire involved the Vernon and Salmon Arm fire protection areas. “In addition to worrying about it coming to Salmon Arm, there were also jurisdictional issues at upper levels of administration – a lot of weenie wagging.”

In the same month, the Neskonlith-McGillivray wildfire included a plan to provide water evacuation by houseboat as there is only one road out of the North Shuswap.

“I remember one particular incident when the PREOC (Provincial Regional Emergency Operation Centre) in Kamloops closed down at 11 p.m. and we were still in operation,” says Essex of the first incident in which SARC members worked round the clock with an EOC manager. “Somebody on the radio said ‘I have a concern about seeing fire again in the Chase region and we need to evacuate right away.’ I said they don’t just happen overnight, we’ll have to do it in morning because PREOC is closed.”

Unlike many ham operators who begin with a CB radio, Essex jumped right into the world of amateur radio after seeing an advertisement in the Salmon Arm Observer in 1993.

“That led to a 14-week course held at Salmon Arm Secondary and sponsored by the Salmon Arm Seniors Radio Club.

“I got involved with a different bunch of people and found it fascinating,” he says. “The fact you can transmit over airways without having to touch a satellite is still one of the strengths of ham radio. Even if satellites were down, we could still communicate.”

His initial interest was sparked by fellow Shuswap Junior Secondary teachers Steve Guidone and Al Marr. Then-principal John Sansom and teachers Mike McMnenamin and Jim Castleman were ham operators as well and the school had its own radio call sign – Ve7SJS.

As he had acquired his Advanced Qualification in Amateur Radio in April 2006, he had the required certification to become the trustee of the Amateur Radio Station for the Shuswap Emergency Program.

Because of his position as teacher-librarian, Essex was more able to accompany students on excursions and says he went on more than 20 band trips. He was impressed that people riding on two different buses could keep in touch on the road and, if they arrived in an unfamiliar community, they could put out a request for directions and some local ham operator would always reply with directions.

Essex also put his teacher/librarian experience to good use by acting as the record keeping secretary treasurer, then treasurer for the Shuswap Amateur Radio Club, followed by a 25-year stint as Secretary.

Previous recognition and awards include the 2005 Provincial Emergency Program (PEP) Communications Volunteer of the Year. In the same year, he received a Certificate of Special Recognition from PEP. In 2014 the Shuswap Amateur Radio Club awarded him a lifetime membership

Needing to spend more time with family, Essex stepped back two years ago and while he is still a member of both clubs, he no longer solicits grants or organizes public events.

He says the seniors club, which is now pretty much dormant and no longer holds meetings, will merge with the Shuswap club.

Members from both clubs have lunch every Tuesday at 11 a.m. and coffee at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays at Jane’s Place in the Mall at Piccadilly.

And the community minded volunteer, who has volunteered in so many incidents has his own call sign – VE7RLE, for anyone who would like to ham it up with him.

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