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October 24, 2012

Volunteers ham it up in simulated disaster

By Terry Oparka
C & G Staff Writer

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Volunteers ham it up in simulated disaster
Pete Gladysz, left, Oakland County Amateur Radio Public Service Corp. assistant emergency coordinator, operates a ham radio, and Jim Richards,emergency coordinator for the group, collects data during the simulated disaster drill at the Troy Fire Department Training Center Oct. 13.

On a moment’s notice, they reported for duty at Troy City Hall from all around Oakland County. They got their assignments and set up emergency operations at the city’s six fire stations and the Troy Fire Emergency Operations Center in Troy Oct. 13.

The trained volunteer amateur radio operators are organized under the Oakland County Homeland Security Division as the Oakland County Amateur Radio Public Service Corps. The group includes members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services, the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service and Skywarn, a volunteer severe-weather spotter program. 

Jim Richards, emergency coordinator for the Amateur Radio Public Service Corps, said about 170 active volunteers were sent text messages and emails, and 60 responded by email or on their radios.

“We were pleased with the initial number of responses to an unexpected situation not making the news,” Richards said. “That’s one of the things we were trying to determine — what would happen with a more localized problem that would not be reported on mainstream media for two to three hours? — and go through an activation when they didn’t know it was coming.”

The Federal Communications Commission set up the Amateur Radio Service in the 1920s, Richards said, but the “ham” designation of amateur radio operators is not clear. Richards said one story attributes it to the assigned call letters, which were based on Morse code, of three of the first operators H, A and M.

The FCC set up the Amateur Radio Service as a person-to-person means of communication only. The ham operators are not allowed to broadcast one way, as radio stations do, and they face fines if they do so, Williams said. Amateur radio operators must go through testing before they are allowed to broadcast. Radios range in price from $400 to $12,000. Oakland County activated the Amateur Radio Public Service Corps during a flu scare a few years ago to provide communication between various flu clinics and an emergency operating center in Pontiac, Richards said.

During the recent drill, the amateur radio operators acted on the premise that fiber optic phone lines in the city had been cut. They received envelopes with their scenarios — someone reporting a house on fire and other calls for service — and transmitted the information to the city’s dispatch center using radio transmitters from their assigned fire station.

Troy Fire Chief Bill Nelson, who is a ham radio operator, explained that while the volunteers knew that such a drill would take place, they did not know the actual date.

Assistant Fire Chief Dave Roberts, also a ham radio operator, said the drill was to test how to respond to a massive failure of phone lines, when residents would have no way to communicate with emergency services since police, fire and public works have backup communication systems. If conventional phone lines fail, cell towers could also fail or be overloaded, Roberts noted.

Nelson said the drill was based on the premise that residents would know to go to their nearest fire station in the event of an emergency.

“We did it in real time and watched the response,” Nelson said. “It went very well.”

Nelson said the city has experienced massive telephone failures three times, the first more than 25 years ago when workers widening Big Beaver snagged thousands of phone wires and disconnected City Hall and police phone lines. It took more than three hours for service to be restored.

Nelson said the second time was 15 years ago, when a Michigan Bell substation on Rochester Road had a massive failure and one-third of Troy lost phone lines for more than 12 hours.

The last time was during the blackout in the summer of 2003, when a power surge on the East Coast caused power stations to go offline as a protective measure. In that case, cellphone service went out after about four hours, when the battery backup systems on the cell towers ran out of juice.

“That’s what we deal with: things that happen once in a career,” Nelson said. “But we have to have a plan and be trained on how to deal with it.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Terry Oparka at toparka@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1054.