When a hurricane hits, having emergency communication networks and infrastructure in place can be vital in providing a rapid response to the areas most affected, which are often inremote locations. Strong winds and rain can pull down powerlines, cause extensive damage to homes and businesses, and threaten people’s lives.

In the Caribbean, the Rainbow Radio League, which has been in operation since 1995 and recently rebranded to become the Youlou Radio Movement (YRM) – ‘Youlou’ being an indigenous name from St Vincent and the Grenadines, meaning ‘rainbow’-, recognises that preparation for a hurricane starts well before the winds roll in.

The YRM, a non-profit organisation that operates with equipment supplied by Barrett Communications, has been training students and nurses in Dominica – where the deadly Hurricane Maria hit in 2017 – to use emergency communications (emcom) systems in anticipation of the next storm. YRM also offers training to air traffic controllers, police officers, military officers and members of the port authority.

The island nation of Dominica is situated in the hurricane belt and experiences an often vicious annual hurricane season. The rugged, mountainous terrain limits the effective use of very high-frequency (VHF) communications, but high-frequency (HF) radio allows coverage over a much larger area as it does not rely on line-of-site communications.

YRM’s emcom team

When Hurricane Maria hit, the YRM, predominantly run by radio amateurs, deployed a joint medical and emcom team that set up in Dominica’s Wesley village. From there, with phone services disrupted by the storm, the team was able to conduct a damage assessment using HF radios and repair a generator at the local clinic using solar panel equipment, says Donald De Riggs, head of the YRM.

In preparation for future storms, he says: “I recommended that local radio amateurs in Dominica and throughout the Caribbean be provided with back-up HF radio equipment, including rapid deployment broadband antennas similar to what was provided by Barrett, as these assets proved their efficacy during this event.”

To date, Australia-based Barrett Communications has provided four shipments of equipment to the St Vincent and the Grenadines-based YRM since 2016, including HF base and manpack radios and base antennas, as well as rapid-deployment portable antennas and mobile HF antennas.

Youlou Radio Movement in St Vincent and the Grenadines is providing much-needed radio links and emcon training in the Caribbean region.

“The gift also includes some solar panels and charge controllers to enable sustained portable operations. Some of these solar panels from a previous donation were left in Dominica in 2017 [after Hurricane Maria] to keep a community FM station on the air, so public awareness broadcasts could be made in the aftermath of the brutal hurricane,” says De Riggs.

Boosting the HF network

Across St Vincent and the Grenadines, there are approximately 20 HF stations, all powered by Barrett equipment. But, when Hurricane Maria hit, there were only two active HF stations on Dominica in the first week after the storm, one of which was operated by the YRM and the other by the Regional Security System, a Caribbean-wide organisation that cooperates on security and emergency matters across the region.

De Riggs and his team are working to establish greater connectivity across the region, starting with developing a well-rounded emcom system in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

“Our domestic HF network is about nearing completion, but it is an ongoing venture as newly trained radio operators become licensed,” De Riggs points out.

His team has received the latest software-defined radio (SDR) equipment from Barrett and are providing much appreciated feedback.

“Under humid, tropical conditions, along with a high-saline environment, certain equipment parts can perish. These issues are reported to Barrett and, in every instance, replacement parts were received, so even though the equipment was a gift, the after-sales service is excellent, to say the least,” De Riggs says.

Aiming to connect the whole region

The YRM’s efforts to establish a fully connected emcom system across the Caribbean islands is continuing, with support from Barrett. The training that De Riggs’ team is providing is helping local communities, including in Dominica, to be better prepared for hurricanes.

“[Barrett’s] support to our organisation has already yielded fruit, with our ability to respond to the communication needs in Dominica,” De Riggs says.

“For the current hurricane season, we have already conducted an all-night vigil during the passage of Tropical Storm Bret to ensure that if an emergency arose, we were ready to respond and support those in need.”     

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