Drills Help Amateur Radio Operators Prepare for Worst-Case Scenario

While unlikely, a catastrophe such as a tornado or major flood could cripple the electrical grid. But, rest assured: Groups of people known as amateur radio operators are ready to jump into action should the need arise.

by Dan Starcher, The Daily Record, Wooster, Ohio / June 24, 2019

(TNS) — Imagine that, all of a sudden, there was no electricity, cell phone service, radio, television, internet or any other methods of communication. What would happen? Is society capable of handling such a scenario?

While unlikely, there is a possibility that a catastrophe such as a tornado or major flood could cripple the electrical grid and create that exact situation. But, rest assured: Groups of people known as amateur radio operators are ready to jump into action should the need arise.

This past weekend, the Silvercreek Amateur Radio Association (SARA) and the Wayne Amateur Radio Club (WARC) took part in the annual 24-hour nationwide American Radio Relay League (AARL) on-the-air field day drill to hone their skills in case the unthinkable should happen.

SARA held its event at the American Legion hall in Rittman, while WARC operated out of the communications building at the corner of Oldman and Burbank roads in Wooster.

Retired Rittman Chief of Police and Silvercreek club member Mike Burg remembers a time when the services of amateur radio operators were called into action.

"Some years ago, when I was a sergeant, the Orrville power plant exploded and burned," Burg recalled. "The explosion took out communications. I called in the help of two amateur radio operators, one in Rittman and one in Orrville, and we took the 911 calls from Orrville. In order to get that 911 information back to Orrville, we used amateur radio."

What makes amateur radio unique is that, even with the power grid offline, it still works. Because it can operate from the use of portable generators or solar power, there is no need to rely on any outside resources. While the situation needs to be dire for operators to be called into action, they are standing by.

"Field Day is a combination of a club picnic and disaster preparedness drill," Burg said. "We operate for 24 hours on as many (radio) bands as we can without the use of commercial electricity."

The clubs maintain a relationship with local emergency management associations (EMS), and some members volunteer for training, alongside police and fire personnel, on how to respond in emergency situations. Those individuals then become part of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services corps, or ARES.

"(ARES) individuals have the knowledge, equipment and the training needed so that in case of an emergency, they can step in and know their place," said licensed radio operator Capt. Doug Hunter of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office and emergency coordinator for ARES. "Most of the time they will serve under the direction of the EMA (Emergency Management Agency). There are many individuals across Ohio that serve in this capacity."

Hunter explained that ARES members are a unique group of volunteers who are willing to step up and answer the call in emergency situations in Wayne and surrounding counties.

"Part of the goal is to force (members) to operate outside of their comfort zone," Hunter said. "They go into a makeshift location, operate under general power, put their antennas up and establish communications.

"They are self-contained," Hunter continued. "Phone service and internet systems rely on infrastructure; amateur radio transmits radio-to-radio."

Wayne County Sheriff Travis Hutchinson visited operators at the WARC site to see their operation firsthand and learn more about the group.

"They have provided radio service for us in the past at local events," Hutchinson said. "This is an interesting field. If there was a total breakdown in communications, their radios would still work — and we would rely on them."

Hutchinson explained that it isn't economically feasible to keep backup radio equipment on hand and having groups like ARES is akin to having a private civil response organization.

"Right now, with all of the flooding going on, these operators are providing a valuable service to people in flood zones," he said. "I don't know what we would do without them."

While the two organizations provide emergency communications when needed, they also provide behind-the-scenes communications services at many local events that go unnoticed.

"This past weekend we provided communications for the Mohican 100-mile run," said Russell McQuate, treasurer and secretary of WARC. "We had members stationed along the route ready to handle emergencies and coordinate the delivery of supplies."

According to McQuate, interest in becoming a licensed amateur radio operator is growing.

"Our club membership has seen an uptick," he said. "And there has been more people participating in Skywarn (severe weather spotters) classes."

To learn more about amateur radio, visit SARA online at https://w8wky.org, WARC at www.w8woo.org and AARL at www.arrl.org.

— Reporter Dan Starcher can be reached at 330-287-1626 or dstarcher@the-daily-record.com. He is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WoosterWriter and Twitter at www.twitter.com/danstarcher.

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©2019 The Daily Record, Wooster, Ohio

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