Amateur radio enthusiasts in Muscatine County are working together to make sure the Salvation Army and Red Cross can maintain lines of communication in the case of digital radio systems failing.
MUSCATINE — The Muscatine County emergency management director doubts it will ever happen. But if the county’s digital communication systems were to fail during a catastrophe, a local group of amateur radio enthusiasts say they have the backup plan.
A team of 20 engineers, hobbyists and old-school radio gear-heads has formed the Muscatine County Amateur Radio Emergency Service, as part of the Muscatine Amateur Radio Club. They’ve been working since last June to refurbish a trailer suited with emergency service radio equipment. It is one of 10 trailers brought to Iowa around 11 years ago by a Homeland Security grant, according to local member Scott Richardson.
The amateur radio equipment, he said, could help local agencies and the county communicate during natural emergencies and catastrophes, especially if the internet and cellphone towers were to go down.
“There’s just a need for it,” Richardson said. “There’s a need for our served agencies, like the Salvation Army and American Red Cross. With technology, the way it’s going, it’s going more and more to the internet. Well, If you have the internet and phone services down, they’re toast. With what we do, no matter what, it always works.”
If all else fails, be a ham
Amateur radio operators, or “hams,” can communication without cell networks or the internet. They communicate by voice, code or through interfacing a radio with a computer to send data. Plus, they can set up anywhere by placing portable generators and antennas.
When the devastating hurricane hit Puerto Rico last year, for example, dozens of amateur radio operators helped police and first responders communicate when their radio networks completely failed.
“Amateur radio people certainly have a place in massive catastrophes,” Emergency Management Director Matt Shook said. “Without them, Puerto Rico would have gone for quite a while until cell networks were up. Amateur guys made that communication possible. That’s a situation where that’s absolutely critical.”
In Muscatine County, Shook argued it would probably take an event as catastrophic as that in Puerto Rico for local communication lines to fail, citing the county’s recent investment in streamlining its agencies’ radio systems. The sheriff’s office, plus city police and fire departments, were all linked together as part of the new digital Motorola system.
“As far as a local disaster, we have many, many redundancies in place, in case we have something to go on here,” Shook said. “That’s why we paid so much for a new system, so we don’t have failures. It would have to be something pretty amazing to lose communication with the outside.”
Hams like Richardson, though, who spent 29 years as an amateur radio operator and more than seven years chasing tornadoes, view amateur radio systems as crucial to maintaining communication in emergencies.
‘There’s something for everybody’
Richardson said amateur radio operators can “tie everybody together” in a way digital systems cannot, which he expects to be especially useful when it comes to communicating with the Salvation Army and Red Cross.
He said the group also acts as “ground-spotters” for the National Weather Service, submitting information through its SKYWARN storm spotter program.
“What you get with radar, it only works so far off the ground, so the National Weather Service can’t really see what’s happening on the ground,” Richardson said. “So we’re basically their eyes on the ground when a storm comes through. It gives them a better look at what’s going on before a storm actually gets here.”
The hams are also coordinating with local caregiver facilities, such as nursing homes and hospitals, to develop communication strategies.
“It was mandated that care-giving facilities have to have their own disaster plan, and the disaster plan has to have a communications plan,” he said. “Most of them don’t have one. So now we’re talking to nursing homes, and are in several of them already, to be their communication plan.”
Richardson also sees an opportunity to collaborate with other amateur radio operators in local counties, including Scott County, which also has its own amateur radio emergency service, he said.
“Our problem is we have 20 people on our team, so if a bad tornado comes through, 15 of them might be affected or their families be affected, so then we’ll be relying on someone in Scott County to come down,” he said. “Right now we’re looking at how we be a better neighbor and know how we can help them. Because if we’re affected, we’re going to need them to help us.”
While a lot of planning is left to be done, Richardson said he is proud of what the group has offered the community so far, and is expecting work to pick up this tornado season.
“The thing about amateur radio is, there’s something for everybody,” he said. “Our mission is to help our served agencies in their time of need.”
’A bit of a white elephant’
While Richardson sees endless possibilities when it comes to putting the group's amateur radio skills to work, for now, the bulk of their time is being spent on restoring the equipment trailer.
When 11 trailers were brought to Iowa, one was sent to Fairfield, to be used by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, according to Shook. At the same time, Richardson and others were searching for a small portable communication tower.
Shook said the trailer had been sitting in Jefferson County largely unused, so officials offered to let Muscatine County keep and maintain it. When Richardson arrived to Fairfield, though, he was given a little more than he bargained for, he said.
The large RV-sized trailer sat at the sheriff’s office, with an antenna hovering several feet over it. Richardson remembers working in 17-degree weather to remove the antenna, then returning again with a bigger truck.
“We ended up with a lot more than we were planning on back then,” he said. “And it’s a bit of a white elephant. It has all the equipment and radios, but none of it’s been updated for 10 years.”
For the past year, volunteers with the Muscatine County Amateur Radio Emergency Service have been repairing and replacing equipment. Members have footed the bill or provided pieces for most of the work, he said. And now, they are fundraising for a new generator.
“We’ve accomplished more in less than a year than a lot of area teams have in the past 10 years,” he said. “And that’s because we have a great group of people, of ex-radio engineers, IT people, just people with diverse backgrounds."
Over the past year, the amateur radio emergency service trailer has been put to the test, including this week, as the National Guard held an exercise to test agencies’ response during a severe weather event. Monday and Tuesday, the group camped in the trailer, receiving 20-year-old radar data from the National Weather Service, waiting for the simulated storm to hit eastern Iowa.
For more information, visit the Muscatine County Amateur Radio Emergency Service’s website at www.MuscatineARES.org