Meridian Star

June 21, 2013

Ham operators to demonstrate communications expertise

By Brian Livingston / blivingston@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Richard Morefield was deep into radio communications long before he joined the US Navy.

    He has talked to people all across the globe.

    Many people used to cell phones and the advanced communications of the Internet capabilities may ask, so what? Well, what if there is another massive storm such as Hurricane Katrina that again effectively wipes out the everyday communications network as we know it? As it was with Katrina, amateur radio operators, or "hams" will likely be the only link to the outside world, as they were then.

    "We may only have 65 watts of power but we can change frequencies to the point our signal will always get out to someone," Morefield says. "We have much more leeway and options than today's modern police, fire and other emergency services."

    Those options will be on display this weekend during a nationwide emergency communications demonstration. Morefield, along with members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) and the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), will be set up Saturday at 200 North Frontage Road, which is the location of the former Bill Ethridge Lincoln-Mercury Dealership. The public is invited to come and see ham radio’s new capabilities and learn how to get their own FCC radio license before the next disaster strikes.

    "The fastest way to turn a crisis into a total disaster is to lose communications,” said Allen Pitts of the ARRL. “From the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to tornadoes in Missouri and Oklahoma, ham radio provided the most reliable communication networks in the first critical hours of the events. Because ham radios are not dependent on the Internet, cell towers or other infrastructure, they work when nothing else is available. We need nothing between us but air.”

    This annual event, called "Field Day" is the climax of the week long "Amateur Radio Week" sponsored by the ARRL, the national association for amateur radio. Morefield says using only emergency power supplies such as gas generators and solar panels, ham operators will construct emergency stations in parks, shopping malls, schools and backyards around the country.

    "We can send messages in many forms without the use of phone systems, Internet or any other infrastructure that can be compromised in a crisis," Morefield says. "More than 35,000 amateur radio operators across the country participated in last year's event."

    David Sharp, director of the Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency, says during Katrina the ham operators were the only people who could talk to anyone.

    "They basically walked outside and threw wires up in the trees," Sharp says. "That's all it took for them to start talking to people on the coast and elsewhere."

    Morefield studied and worked on radio communication systems while in the Navy. He said once he got out of the service he wanted to get back into ham radio operations.

    "This is my way to continue supporting the community and country that supported me when I was serving America," says Morefield, who is the emergency coordinator for ARES. "This is my way, and many ham operators feel the same way, of giving back to our communities. We are volunteers but we serve a vital purpose."

    Morefield says amateur radio is growing in the U.S. There are now more than 700,000 amateur radio licensees in the country, and more than 2.5 million around the world. Through the ARRL’s ARES program, ham volunteers provide both emergency communications for thousands of state and local emergency response agencies and non-emergency community services too, all for free.

    Sharp says these operators are essential elements to the overall emergency services corps. The demonstration, which LEMA is helping to support, will enable to the two entities to share ideas, review new equipment and techniques, so that in the event another Katrina or similar disaster hits the two groups will have unlimited coordination.

    "We are going to support them because we know just how vital they are," Sharpe says. "They contribute greatly to our storm spotter network and although they may be considered a backup system, we have used them in the past and wouldn't hesitate to use them in the future if the needs arise. They be labeled as volunteers because they don't get paid but that are professionals in the way they can use their system."