Ham radio included in official emergency preparations

MEDFORD — After an earthquake rocked Haiti to its foundation in January, only amateur radio operators were left to relay vital messages in the immediate aftermath to emergency service centers throughout the country.

While local emergency officials are certain Southern Oregon would fare better in a major natural disaster, they were happy to give ham radio operators a spot in the county's new Emergency Operations Dispatch Center near the Medford airport.

"In times of disaster, we can use all the help we can get," Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said. "The ham radio folks can help assist us in communications if our radios are shut down."

The space provided to ham radio is nearly complete, with operators ready to fire up their old-school equipment in the coming weeks, said Bill Anderson, the assistant emergency coordinator for the Jackson County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (JCARES).

"We hope we're not needed, but we will be ready when the time comes," Anderson said.

Anderson is one of 25 members of JCARES who take time out of their personal schedules to train in emergency radio procedures in the case of a natural disaster.

Though Southern Oregon is relatively safe from such large-scale events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis, the threats of massive forest fires and an earthquake spur the need for JCARES, said the group's emergency coordinator Don Montgomery.

"We are among the most successful in the state when it comes to training scenarios," Montgomery said.

JCARES participated in an earthquake drill in the fall in which emergency service personnel from across the state reacted to a simulated disaster that knocked down communication between fire departments and hospitals, and knocked out bridges and overpasses.

Volunteers with JCARES responded to designated spots throughout the county, making calls to care providers for important materials such as blood and medical equipment that are so important in a disaster.

In an evaluation of the drill, JCARES scored in the top 5 percent in the state, Montgomery said.

What can give ham radio an advantage in today's highly technical, gadget-oriented society is its simplicity.

If cell phone towers and Internet servers were knocked out of commission, it would fall to ham radios and their low-frequency transmissions to reach repeaters across the world.

"An emergency without communication quickly becomes a disaster," Montgomery said.

JCARES received a grant this year for $15,000, which was used to upgrade equipment and to outfit an ambulance donated by Mercy Flights.

The ambulance gives the group the ability to traverse the wreckage left behind in an earthquake or fire, bringing them closer to the action to assist in getting the word out.

"We can go to spots where people need the most help and get resources to them," said Robert Tangel, a JCARES volunteer.

JCARES operates an office from the Rogue Valley Manor, which gives them a high vantage point to reach repeaters outside the area. A geologist inspected the manor and decided it could withstand a strong earthquake because it's placed on a bed of solid rock, Anderson said.

Ham radio, though holding tight to its low-fi roots, has adapted to digital culture. JCARES has a bevy of digital radios that can transmit over the Internet.

JCARES is looking to add to its ranks, particularly young people, Montgomery said.

"It's not just meant for old folks," he said. "We certainly want to see a new generation of men and women try amateur radio."

The group is offering a free 10-week class for anyone interested, after which attendees will receive their amateur radio license. Classes will start at 6 p.m. March 1, at the Rogue Valley Manor, 1200 Mira Mar Ave., Medford.

"We don't expect everyone who goes to become emergency operators," Anderson said. "If you only want to learn it as a hobby, that's more than fine."

Winters praised the enthusiasm of JCARES members.

"They are good people with good hearts," the sheriff said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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