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How do we maintain communications during and following a disaster?
This is a question that I am frequently asked as I make presentations in the community. The question is very valid and certainly has been brought to the forefront in the aftermath of disaster after disaster that has struck the United States.
As we have read in many media accounts, conventional communications systems seem to fail in disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes.
Some of these systems fail due to floodwaters inundating the transmitter sites. Some failed because towers collapsed in the winds of the storms.
Consistently, amateur, or ham radio operators have been there to fill the gap left by the failure of conventional communications systems.
So what is a ham radio operator? Nobody knows when amateur radio operators were first called "hams," but we do know that amateur radio is as old as the history of radio itself.
In 1912, Congress passed the first laws regulating radio transmissions in the United States. By 1914, amateur experimenters were communicating nationwide and setting up a system to relay messages from coast to coast.
A ham radio operator is an individual that is interested in communications, electronics or maybe both that use two-way radio stations from their homes, cars, boats and outdoors to make friends around town and around the world. They communicate with each other using voice, computers and Morse code.
Some hams bounce their signals off the upper regions of the atmosphere or even the moon, so they can talk with hams on the other side of the world. Other hams use satellites. Many use hand-held radios that fit in their pockets.
In short, ham radio is a hobby that can be used for fun or serious use.
Ham radio operators also have a serious side to their hobby. Ham radio operators have the unique ability to function in disaster situations when conventional communications systems fail.
But this preparedness doesn't come easy.
Many ham operators spend a tremendous amount of time and their personal resources to maintain "ready kits" that contain emergency power supplies and antennae that enable them to provide critical, lifesaving information to government authorities following major storms, earthquakes and other calamities.
Using the simplest of radio setups and antennas, amateurs communicate with each other during emergencies and handle messages for police and other public service organizations during all kinds of emergencies.
During the 2005 hurricanes, a volunteer army of nearly 1,000 amateur radio operators stepped in to help fill the communications void that was left across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama when Hurricane Katrina snapped telephone poles and toppled many cell phone towers.
In more recent news articles it was reported that following a series of tornadoes, "Ham radio operators suddenly find themselves in great demand: the American Red Cross, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have all made requests in the last week for more volunteer operators to handle communications at hospitals, evacuation centers and emergency operations facilities."
During Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss., volunteer ham radio operators were dispatched by FEMA to hospitals and evacuation shelters have been using their radios around the clock to send emergency calls.
Ham operators use transmitters that can send messages to other operators both locally and around the world.
Ham radio operators will be an integral part of our emergency response plan and our emergency communications system in Anderson County.
I personally realized their importance from the assistance they have provided me with in previous disasters with which I have been a part.
The important role they played in helping in those disaster situations is the very reason I obtained my ham radio license. The Anderson County Division of Emergency Management has established a ham radio operations center as a part of its county Emergency Operations Center. Community ham operators have, on multiple occasions, staffed the center in emergencies but more ham operators are always needed.
It's easy to become a ham operator. The most popular license for beginners is the Technician Class license, which requires only a multiple-choice question written examination.
The test is written with the beginner in mind. Morse Code is not required for this license. With a Technician Class license, you will have all ham radio privileges above 30 megahertz (MHz).
These privileges include the very popular 2-meter band. Anderson County has its very own 2-meter repeater which ham operators use to stay in touch with each other and for use in providing emergency communications during disasters.
This repeater is also available for use by ham operators to "rag chew" and to just keep up with each other around the community. Technician level license holders can also operate FM voice, digital packet (computers), amateur television, single-sideband voice and several other interesting modes.
You can even make international radio contacts via satellites, using relatively simple equipment.
The Anderson County Division of Emergency Management in conjunction with the Anderson Radio Club is sponsoring a ham radio class.
The classes will begin Aug. 18 at the Anderson County EMS Building located at 1191 Bypass South in Lawrenceburg. The classes will meet on Monday evenings from 7-9 p.m. and classes will continue until participants are ready to sit for their exam.
Local extra class ham radio operator, Jerry Shouse, K4TG, along with other local hams, will teach each class.
Textbooks will be available for purchase or can be ordered direct by the participants. At the completion of the training, students will have the opportunity to sit for the exam for their technician level amateur radio license. This will be a great way to get involved in your community and at the same time learn about a great hobby.
Currently licensed ham operators are invited and encouraged to come and sit in as well. Please come and join us for this training. Additional information is available by calling 839-0016.
Charlie O'Neal is director of the Anderson County Department of Public Safety.