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From Amateur Radio Social Club to 50 Years of Disaster Response

Steve Landers started with a two-way, amateur (ham) radio club that felt like family, led to participation in disaster response that continued through a lifetime of emergencies and disasters in Macon-Bibb County, Ga.

From Amateur Radio Social Club to 50 Years of Disaster Response
Steve Landers started with a two-way, amateur (ham) radio club that felt like family, led to participation in disaster response that continued through a lifetime of emergencies and disasters in Macon-Bibb County, Ga.

Steve Landers was about 16 years old when he joined a group of amateur radio enthusiasts. He found a unique camaraderie within the group and deep desire to help those in need.
Those feelings still run deep, countless disasters and 50 years later.

Of that initial ham radio group, Landers said, “Basically it was a social club of two-way radio enthusiasts, but it didn’t take long to figure out that the main interest was the support of the civil aid unit.”

Landers has volunteered his services as part of the Macon-Bibb, Ga., Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Volunteer Group ever since, starting with dragging the Ocmulgee River for drowning victims to responding to fatal traffic accidents on the motorway, to responding to tornadoes, to participating in the response during the devastating floods of 1994.

The group assists the Macon-Bibb EMA whenever there is a need to activate the EOC, whether is a natural or man-made disaster. “Anytime you hear of a tornado or other storm in the Macon area, you can bet our group is going to be out there,” Landers said.

Landers’ specialty, of course, is radio communications, but Angela Billiot, president of the board of the volunteer group, called Landers a jack-of-all trades.

“I can put him on the radio, and he is comfortable,” Billiot said. “I can put him in our mobile command, listening to the radio or in the office in front of computer or on the street directing traffic. He’s done search and rescue, civic events, tornadoes, hurricanes, fatalities on the interstate, and he was around when the flood of 1994 came through Georgia.”

The group, about 15 now, takes on the overflow 911 calls that dispatch can’t handle. A couple of them operate the mobile command unit. The group does a lot of damage assessment after storms in the county and surrounding counties and has been instrumental in helping other counties get the recovery money they need.

Landers does all of the above and has taken a dozen or more courses, including courses at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md. The volunteers are very well trained, thanks in large part to the relationship with the Macon-Bibb EMA and its director, Spencer Hawkins.
“We’re lucky to have such a great relationship with the county and a great director,” Billiot said. “We’re allowed to participate in all drills, civic events, conferences — he will sign off on any training they want.”

That opportunity to grow, learn, participate and feel needed is why so many volunteers stick with it so long. Billiot said that along with Landers, there are other members who’ve participated for more than 20 years and up to 40.
Hawkins is grateful for the dedication. “Macon-Bibb County is lucky to have someone like Steve Landers,” he said in an email. “There are untold number of people that Mr. Landers has either inspired to volunteer themselves or were made safer during disaster situations because of his actions.”

Landers considers himself more of a radio guy for which he’s gotten most of his training, dating back to those teen years when his group trained with the American Red Cross. He remembers a turning point when he was sitting in his little office that his Dad built at their home trying to do homework but listening to the radio about the search for a missing person. He knew that’s where he needed to be.

He remembers his first forays into disaster response and the messy job of dragging the river, sometimes several times a year, for bodies. “We had a Macon Motor Boat Club, which contained a specially trained group of guys who knew how to navigate the river and drag at the same time with grapnel hooks. You drag up and down the river until you hook the body,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant sight, to say the least.”

That was when it was called Civil Defense, and during the Cold War when the threat of nuclear war seemed ominous. “We were highly trained at dealing with nuclear fallout,” he said. “I’ve been to radiation school; I’ve worn the mask. “Now they call it Homeland Security and it means that if there’s a storm, a real storm, you can count on us getting called out and the National Guard getting called out,” Landers said.

He said he has worked with the National Guard numerous times, helping with two-way radio communication. But he will do anything. He remembers days on end during those July 1994 floods handing out, of all things, water.

It started with Tropical Storm Alberto, which before it was over, had delivered enough rain to have brought the worst flooding in the state’s history, until Hurricane Michael in 2018. “Wall-to-wall water,” is what Landers remembers. “There was devastation everywhere. Rows of houses that were just wiped out, water up to the ceilings.”

But the worst thing he has seen in his 50 years? “I think I can answer that one quickly. The worst I’ve seen is a deceased victim in a motor vehicle accident laying across a seat. That’s not a pretty sight.”

So why does he keep on? He explains that his family “had some issues” when he was growing up. “Then I found the radio group and they were like the family I wanted but couldn’t have, so I buried myself in that group and in school.

He said there’s never been a day when he wondered why he joined. “The maturity that I got, the camaraderie, the training that it offered was better than any medical care or counseling I could have gotten. And it still is.”