by: Joanna Dodder Nellans
December 30, 2010
Amateur radio operators get through one way or another during emergencies
PRESCOTT – When the Internet, cell phones, electricity and even police and fire radios won’t work, amateur or “ham” radio operators come to the rescue.
At the end of 2010, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is celebrating 75 years of helping out during emergencies and other public needs. The federal government created a similar program called Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) during Cold War times to help with emergencies. Three Yavapai County-based ARES and RACES groups combined into one in 1998, and the chapter now has 90 members throughout the county.
When emergency personnel can’t use their radios in remote areas or their channels load up with too much traffic, the ARES/RACES volunteers can get their messages through. One reason is because, unlike government agencies and utility companies, the ham radio operators can work with an infinite number of channels, and they are experts at it, explained Lloyd Halgunseth, the district emergency coordinator for the Yavapai County ARES/RACES group, who has 48 years of experience. These days, the ham radio operators can even send e-mail messages via ham frequencies, which is especially helpful when emergency officials have detailed messages to deliver, explained Yavapai County ARES/RACES member Bud Semon.
Ham radio operators have provided crucial aid in major disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to 9/11.
One dramatic true-life example of how ham radio operators can save lives occurred this fall in Yavapai County. Jim Zimmerman, a Yavapai County ARES/RACES member, was talking to Semon via a national radio frequency popular for ham radio chatting when Zimmerman heard just enough of a weak signal to figure out a sick boy needed help somewhere.
A Phoenix Boy Scout leader who also was a ham radio operator was familiar with the popular channel, so he figured it was his best chance to get someone to hear him calling for help with his hand-held radio on top of a mountain in the remote Pine Mountain Wilderness Area in western Yavapai County Sept. 18.
The troop originally had come to the wilderness to participate in a regional Boy Scouts mountaintop signaling exercise, using mirrors to transmit signals from one mountain to another.
The troop leader said his troop became lost on the trip back from Pine Mountain, and one of the scouts was ill. The troop was eight miles from its vehicles and running low on water after underestimating the time that all the hiking would take. The boy was unable to walk far. And nightfall was approaching.
Zimmerman immediately contacted local emergency officials, and air and ground units responded.
With the troop leader unable to provide an exact location for rescuers, Zimmerman advised him to focus his signal mirror to the west when he heard a helicopter. Meanwhile, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office notified the pilot to watch for the signal.
The plan worked. The pilot spotted the signal and landed in the nearest safe place while Zimmerman told the Boy Scout leader the helicopter’s location.
“The radio really was the lynchpin that got them rescued,” Zimmerman said. “The funny part is, we didn’t even have to get sweaty. We were armchair adventurers.”
The county’s ARES/RACES chapter includes about 40 core members who volunteer countless hours to help the public on a regular basis. Whenever government officials activate an emergency operations center, for example, the ARES/RACES members are activated to help. The Yavapai County government, through its Emergency Management Division, provides them with an RV set up with a variety of communications equipment. The group has its own radio repeaters that help it monitor numerous emergency frequencies while enhancing communications where needed.
“We’re blessed that Nick (Angiolillo, county emergency management coordinator) is a firm believer in amateur radio,” Halgunseth said.
Angiolillo said he “absolutely” is a firm believer.
“They are a vital backup communications organization,” Angiolillo said. “More than once, we’ve had a situation when we can’t get through on phone lines.” Oftentimes it’s because the public is overloading the lines during emergencies.
The county ARES/RACES group checks its communications systems weekly, conducts regular training exercises and even helps out for free at large public events such as backcountry races.
“This is our way to give back to the community,” Zimmerman said.
Ham radio operators and airplane pilots are the only two hobbies that require federal licenses. A ham radio license allows people to go beyond listening to radio communications and use their radios to communicate.
The test to get a ham radio license is easy, Halgunseth assured. The Yavapai Amateur Radio Club helps people prepare for the exam and also helps people learn how to use their radios. For more information, go to its website at w7yrc.org.
Once you get a license, the ham radio equipment can cost as little as $100.
“It’s not a rich man’s hobby,” Halgunseth said.