Ready and Reliable – When All Else Fails

by Larry Gierer
Ledger-Enquirer, Columbus GA
When other means fail, ham radios get the message through

There might be a day when everything fails.

Telephone lines become spark-spewing snakes dancing on the pavement. Cell phone towers are reduced to tall, useless eyesores. Transformers boom like drums in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Everything becomes quiet, dark.

But not all would be lost in the storm.

“There will still be the ham radio operators,” Chance Corbett says.

Thank goodness for that.

Actually, things don’t have to get that grim for the amateur radio operators to play a big role in the safety of citizens.

“They are our eyes and ears,” says Corbett, the director of Russell County Emergency Management. “They’re telling us what’s happening with the weather. Radar can show you there’s a rotation, but the radio guys tell us that a tornado has touched down and what kind of damage has been done. They can tell us if baseball-sized hail is pounding homes. They’re reporting either from their homes or from their cars. They are where the action is.”

As long as their batteries are working, so are the radios.

“We won’t get jammed,” says Marc Pope of the Russell County Radio Club. “We’ll get our message delivered.”

When Corbett first took over at the Emergency Operations Center in Phenix City in 2001, he had a chat with Pope and another operator, Jim Herring, about the role amateur radio could play. He liked what he heard. The politicians provided the funding for equipment. The labor is free.

“I consider Jim and Marc as part of the staff,” says Corbett. Important meetings during a crisis will find them in attendance.

Meeting place

At the EOC facility on Prentiss Drive in Phenix City, there is a room smaller than some of Donald Trump’s closets. It has a nice view of the Russell County Jail. In the room are a ham radio and computers. It’s here that one will always be able to find amateur radio operators when a bad storm is approaching.

The computers are equipped with the Automatic Packet Reporting System software.

“There’s my house,” says Pope, as it pops up on a screen map along with the longitude, latitude of the building and the status of the current weather.

“It’s a little cloudy,” Pope said.

That’s the weather, not the picture.

Some of the amateur radio workers have a Global Positioning System receiver in their car so the vehicle can be tracked on the screen as it travels during a storm.

Not only are there radios in homes and cars, but each of the local hospitals has one with a ham operator assigned to each. That was made possible by a grant from the Metropolitan Medical Response System.

“I’ve got Summit Hospital,” said Terry Spencer, president of the Columbus Radio Club.

Ready for disaster

Pope and Spencer are members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment for communications public service when disaster strikes. There are about 40 covering the Chattahoochee Valley, Pope said.

Though both Pope and Spencer enjoy using their radios for social contacts with others around the globe — Pope has exchanged flags with someone in Russia — it’s helping others that both find most gratifying.

“If someone is in need of help and is near a radio, someone will hear their plea.” Spencer said.

It might be someone in Florida whose cry is heard by someone in Japan who tells someone in New York who reaches help in Florida — but the message gets delivered.

Ham radio operators — some speak and some use Morse code — must pass an exam displaying knowledge and understanding of key concepts before they are licensed to operate, something that isn’t needed to operate a citizens band radio with much less range.

Pope and Spencer have had a love affair with radio for a long time. Like many others, they began with CB radios. Pope’s handle was “Skyman,” fitting for a retired Air Force guy. Spencer’s was “Popeye,” with no explanation.

Radio stars

Their call signs have changed since they’ve gone on to bigger and better equipment. Pope is WX4map; Spencer is K4spe.

Pope, 49, a meteorologist, works at the Fort Benning weather station. Single, he lives in Phenix City.

Spencer, 65, is retired from BellSouth and does technical support for Radio Shack in Phenix City. He’s married to Faye and has two adult children, Chad and AnnMarie. A Vietnam veteran — he was an Army communications specialist — he recently got hooked back into radio about two years ago and has been going at it since with hurricane-type force.

He purchased the majority of his equipment from an ailing radio operator and set up a special room from which to conduct his communications.

Spencer has a mobile unit he puts in the bed of his truck so he can take it to a trouble spot and report. He doesn’t, however, chase storms.

“That,” he says with a laugh, “is for the younger guys.”

Russell County has two small mobile communication trailers that can be moved to any location by connecting them to the back of a half-ton pickup truck. Each has room for a couple of ham radio operators. Columbus has one such unit, but it’s about twice the size of those in Russell County.

“It’s not as useful, because it’s so large a tractor-trailer is needed to pull it,” Pope said.

“We really need something smaller,” says Spencer, adding that a grant has been applied for in the hope of raising the needed funding. “It’d make it easier to get to a site and help people, and that’s what it’s all about.”