Radio operators assisting emergency officials
By Ken Jackson
Central Florida made its way through another hurricane season unscathed – the entire state was only affected by one named system (weak Tropical Storm Andrea in June) – but local emergency authorities stress that residents need to remain vigilant and prepared for any other emergency.
The winter and early spring are known in this area for fires and tornadoes.
“That’s fine, we’d rather prepare than respond,” said Osceola Emergency Operations Manager Rich Collins, who noted the 2013 storm season was the mildest in overall activity since 1982.
If an emergency situation should develop in Osceola County, a group of volunteers armed with ham radios stand ready to report local conditions stand ready to assist emergency operations personnel.
Osceola County Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) is made up of certified radio operators who can relay information locally, nationally and internationally when traditional lines of communications like cell phones go down, which they are known to do in a hurricane, an earthquake (like in Haiti) or in a localized situation like the Boston Marathon bombings last April.
ARES added to its ranks during a December training session, when 26 new members passed a Federal Communications commission licensing exam and become certified at the technical level. The group now has around 40 active members.
The county has had a ham radio response presence off and on for a long time but made a notable and permanent return to active service in 1998, when an F3 tornado tore through Osceola County from Campbell City to Narcoossee.
“Radio operators provided early warning from the time it touched down,” Joe Riley, the county’s emergency communications coordinator for radio operations said.
All ARES members are volunteers who participate in weekly Tuesday check-ins to test equipment and meet the last Monday of each month to discuss various training topics and strengthen the group’s social connection before a disaster occurs.
“Our operators here can serve as relays for information,” EOC Management Coordinator Rich Halquist said. “As the ARES group grows and becomes more refined, it will be a group that’s deployable in the field as an asset.”
Bill Burchfield, who helps run the Emergency Management Communications Assistance Team, said amateur radio capabilities are possible in all conditions, making it a viable emergency means of communications in a disaster.
“In an event like the bombing in Boston, high usage of cellphones in one area can blow out the system,” he said. “In a larger disaster, the first 24-48 hours are a critical time for moving information before traditional communications gets back up.”
Dabbling in amateur radio is not an expensive hobby. A five-watt hand-held programmable radio can be purchased for less than $50.
Collins said having trained spotters and responders in neighborhoods throughout the area increase its ability to return to normal after a situation.
“The goal is to have teams in all five of the county’s commission districts to have a better level of community resiliency,” he said. “Communities that take an active part in being prepared have a stronger level of community resiliency.”
Training involves learning basic communications, FCC rules and the frequency spectrum. Riley said it’s taught in classes
“It’s a lot of technical stuff spread over five weeks, two hours a week,” he said. “Spread out it’s easier to comprehend and more people pass the exam than if we cram it into a weekend.”
Riley said the next training session will be held when there’s enough demand. Those interested can connect with the group through its website, www.OsceolacountyARES.org.
As always, the county’s emergency management team employs social media to distribute essential information. Its website is mysafety.osceola.org, and breaking news is posted on its Facebook (www.facebook.com/OsceolaEOC) and witter (@OsceolaEOC) pages.
“At any point of the year there’s a potential for a disaster, so the message is to always be prepared,” Collins said.