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Thursday, March 22, 2012

THIS IS JUST A DRILL - Amateur Radio Operators Make Use of Newly Built Fire/EMS Station for Training

Amateur Radio Operators Make Use of Newly Built Fire/EMS Station for Training

Jim Montgomery
ARRL Emergency Coordinator
Amateur Radio Emergency Service
Prince George’s County, MD 

Hurricane Chessie is now half way up Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay causing havoc as a result of a full moon, high tide and low pressure weather system in the immediate area.  Residents in the low lying areas cannot take the tremendous high water surges and must evacuate to higher ground to safe shelter.  All local commercial infrastructure is out; no power, telephones or Internet connection.  The shelters are bursting at the seams as the locals pour in from the elements.  The shelter manager is low on supplies, food and water.  How is the manager going to request additional goods and services to stressed out citizens?

Sounds like fiction out of a Hollywood movie?  No, this happens in just about every major storm that makes landfall.  But all is not lost.  Communications are restored through the Amateur Radio Service sanctioned by Part 97 of the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC established the Amateur Radio Service as a voluntary, non-commercial, radio communications service.  It allows licensed radio operators to improve their communications and technical skills, while providing the nation with a pool of trained radio operators and technicians who can provide essential communications during emergencies.  After taking a written exam and receiving a passing grade, the FCC issues a call sign to identify yourself over the air waves.  Oh, and Morse code is no longer a requirement to get a license.

During the emergencies, Amateur Radio operators may transmit messages to other amateur stations, subject to the privileges authorized for the class of license the amateur station control operator holds. For these emergency transmissions, no special FCC permissions are required.

Amateur Radio operators belonging to the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) have responded to local and regional disasters since the 1930s, including the attacks of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  During the Katrina event, more than one thousand ARES volunteers assisted in the aftermath and provided communications for the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and other individuals related to the relief effort.  After Katrina, Hancock County, MS had lost all contact with the outside world, except through ARES operators who served as 911 dispatchers and message relay operators.

On Saturday March 17, 2012, the Prince George’s County, MD ARES radio operators, converged on the Glenarden American Legion Post 275, 8201 Martin Luther King Hwy, Glenarden, MD at 9:00am for a breakfast buffet hosted by the County’s RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) Radio Officer, Kenny Greenhouse, KB3IIE.  Little did they know that their morning chow would be interrupted by the plea for help.

Along about 10:00am, the alarm sounded to activate Operation Breakfast Deployment to the newest county fire house (built in 2010), St. Joseph Fire/Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Station 806, at 2901 St. Joseph Drive, Springdale, MD.  Under the direction of ARES’ Emergency Coordinator, Jim Montgomery, WB3KAS, a makeshift emergency communications network was set up in the Fire Station ‘shelter’ to relay critical and important information to those who would be in charge of supplying and re-supplying disaster shelters.  We simulated and operated under no commercial power and no Internet connectivity.  Just a large. . .a very large 12V car battery-like device.  The radio operators set up a radio voice net for local communications, one for long distance communications and a special digital network for sending emails over the radio waves without being connected to the Internet.  This email digital network is called the Winlink 2000 Radio Messaging System.

Back at the Post, Kenny was busy setting up his team to provide a relay station. . .just in case the shelter operations could not make a direct contact with the “government supply/resupply agencies.”  The Post is outfitted with permanent antenna systems for this type of operation.

There were eight communication objectives spelled out in the exercise communications plan sent in advance to the radio operators.  They ranged from simple to increased complexity.  All eight objectives of the drill were successfully achieved.  These various operating modes were different methods by which emails found their way to the Internet through Internet Gateways scattered around the county and the country. These Internet Gateways receives radio waves containing the email information and transforms them into the Internet to be read by the recipients.  The radio system set up at the Fire Station and the Post were not connected to a local Internet service provider in any way, shape or form.

Email messages were transmitted to adjacent county ARES radio operators in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties requesting information about their organization structure and meeting schedules.  Another set of emails were sent to county officials in the county’s Office of Homeland Security describing the events as they unfolded.

Around 1pm, Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor and the Fire Services Public Information Officer (PIO), Mark Brady arrived at Station 806 to witness the successful exercise.  Marc and Mark (hmmmm!) made themselves at home in the training room with us while the exercise continued.  An exercise message was generated to the Chief and the PIO simulating a need for supplies.  The radio frequency route that this message took, from the training room in Fire Station 806, went to a Amateur Radio station Gateway Server in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  It then entered the Internet at Halifax, Nova Scotia and finally to the Chief’s and PIO’s cell phone in the training room. . .all under four minutes. . .with no local Internet connection!

The motto of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, “When All Else Fails. . .Amateur Radio Still Works” prevails again.

For more information on how to become an Amateur Radio operator contact the American Radio Relay League at: www.arrl.org.

Special thanks are in order:

To LT R.J. Brushwood, our great host of Station 806 for allowing us the opportunity to use the Station’s facilities for our exercise.

To the following Amateur Radio operators who took a Saturday out of their weekend schedule to support the event:

At the A.L. Post 275 


At Fire Station 806