by Tim Donnelly
, Beaufort SC
While professional, state-of-the-art equipment will take center stage during the area’s recovery from a hurricane, an old hobbyist pastime just might come to the rescue if all else fails.
Hilton Head Island is joining a growing disaster preparation trend by installing amateur radios to use as a backup system if the multitude of other communications systems is knocked by a storm.
It’s the same system — ham radio — hobbyists around the world have used to talk to each other for almost 100 years. It’s also the same one that helped relay distress signals and emergency information during Hurricane Katrina and other disasters while other lines were down or jammed.
The town has installed one ham radio at its emergency operations center and is purchasing two mobile units that can be used in cars. The town installed a ham radio antenna about a year ago.
The systems are relatively cheap when compared with the high-tech radio systems used for primary communications, said Jay Harter, town emergency management coordinator. The mobile units cost about $1,000 each, he said.
“Communications are always an issue during any major disaster. Ham radio operators are one of the critical links for communications,” said Chief Tom Fieldstead of the Fire and Rescue Division. “It just makes an awful lot of sense.”
The county and local hospitals are also adopting the radio system as a backup, Harter said.
Since operators have to be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, emergency officials will deputize members of local amateur radio clubs.
“They’re going to be spread thin,” Harter said of the operators. “They’re wanted and needed in so many different places.”
Hilton Head decided to go a step further and get their own licensed operators to free up some local club members.
Harter and Deputy Fire Chief Randy Osterman recently completed the two-day class and passed the licensing exam. Both will have ham radios in their cars.
The town uses an 800-megahertz radio system to communicate during emergencies and can also use a statewide radio system, microwaves, fiber optics and telephones if needed, Fieldstead said.
If those systems fail, ham radio operators would use a system of relays to contact people across the country if necessary.