Ham operators join disaster recovery team

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Ham operators join disaster recovery team

June 26, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0874}

An e-Review Feature
By Mary Lee Downey**

Ham radio operator Dave Watkins connects with other operators from his home in Valrico, Fla. to “test” the conference network. Operators connect twice a week to keep the network active and become better acquainted with how they’ll work together during a disaster. Photo by Mary Lee Downey. Photo #08-0910.

“Good morning! This is WZ3ZAU,” Dave Watkins says to anyone listening.

Although he sounds like the host of a new radio station in Florida, Watkins is actually an amateur or ham radio operator. WZ3ZAU is his call signal.

It’s Saturday at 8:30 a.m. in Valrico, Fla., and Watkins is checking in with other ham operators to see if they are available to chat. Although it seems more like social time, Watkins and the group are working together on something much more urgent — using amateur radio in the Florida Conference for disaster relief and recovery.

Florida is no stranger to disaster. After experiencing more than three major hurricanes and several destructive tornadoes in the last few years, and with this summer’s hurricane season just ending its first month, the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry is looking for creative and reliable ways to reach out to survivors of whatever storms might hit Florida.

Amateur radio is one of them.
Expanding the network

Amateur radio isn’t new to the conference’s disaster recovery efforts. The Rev. Tom Norton has been using amateur radio in a variety of ways on behalf of the conference since the 1970s.

Norton is pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, and for several years he served as a district disaster coordinator. During recovery efforts from the storms that hit Florida in 2004 and 2005, Norton operated the radio and equipment he installed in the Florida Conference Center in Lakeland to help relay damage reports, provide police and fire communications, and coordinate delivery of relief supplies.

The conference radio equipment operates under the call sign K4UMC and is licensed with the Amateur Radio Service, making the Florida Conference Center a base station, with Norton as its trustee. Base stations can communicate with local AM radios and other base stations statewide.

Norton also created a Web site dedicated to amateur radio and Christian outreach called AMEN (Amateur Methodist Emergency Network) Radio.

The conference has been working to ramp up its use of radio technology in recovery efforts by recruiting ham operators to be part of a conferencewide network. About a year ago, Bill Roy, a former conference disaster recovery staff member, began working with Norton to help get people connected.

“Tom Norton really got the radios started,” Roy said. “He started the Web site, AMEN Radio, from his own personal expenses.”

After working with Marvin Hammontree, disaster coordinator for the conference and the South Central District, and distributing information to other ham radio operators, Norton and Roy have seen results from their recruitment efforts. More than four dozen United Methodist radio users in Florida have registered their intent to use their skills and equipment if needed in a disaster, and every Florida Conference district has at least one registered operator, according to Roy. 

The goal is to have a radio in every district and an operator in each congregation. During a disaster, operators in local churches will connect with each other to share information and needs. A “net controller” will in turn relay information back to district superintendents and the conference disaster recovery office.

More than 48 amateur radio operators have joined the Florida Conference network of operators to help relay information and coordinate relief efforts during disasters. The network also includes nine base stations across the conference that can communicate with local AM radios and with each other. In an emergency, local radio operators can contact their net or base station, which can then contact other stations, creating a connection of net stations. Photo courtesy of AMEN Radio. Photo #08-0911.

Hammontree says the team is still “working on protocol,” but once ever district has a radio “all communication will go to the district superintendent.” “Communication is the key to everything,” he said.

Tried, true technology to meet new challenges

But why the need for amateur radio for disaster recovery? Why not use cell phones or satellite phones to transmit information? Watkins believes the answer is clear.

“If a satellite phone goes into a building, you can’t see the satellite,” Watkins said, which means the phone can’t receive a signal. Satellite phones may not work when a view of the sky is obscured.

Watkins believes cell phones also have reliability issues. During a storm cell phone towers may be damaged, making it difficult to get a signal. Large-scale power outages may also disrupt service because cell phone towers need electricity. And in some areas there’s no reception even when skies are clear because there aren’t any cell towers.

Watkins says radios are better because their signal travels through airwaves, which don’t go down or offline. Ham radio operators can continue transmitting, reaching out to any of the 10,000 users across the United States. By having an operator in every area, it will make it easier to contact those who are able to distribute aid, getting help to those in need faster.

“Old technology still works,” Roy says, adding “if all communications fail, it’s an emergency system.”

It’s connectional

That amateur radios are reliable in a disaster when many other forms of communication fail isn’t the only factor that makes them appealing to the conference. The way the radios operate is familiar to United Methodists: it’s connectional.  

“It’s really a part of the connectional system,” Roy said. “It’s a literal connection system, not just a theory in practice.”

Watkins says the radios are similar to those used by local firefighters, with a central base to which everyone can connect. That is the net controller.

“It’s basically a network of nets — people on local radio net, people around the state and the Internet,” Watkins said.

Watkins is a member of First United Methodist Church of Brandon, and he operates as a base station, or shack as it’s referred to by users, out of his home. He is able to connect to people locally, around the world and over the Internet through the AMEN Radio chat room.

Disaster recovery ham radio operators have been “meeting” together twice a week since March 1 to do a weekly test of the system.

“It’s very similar to radio weather warnings,” Roy said.

Every Wednesday night and Saturday morning the operators connect, either through the radio or chat room, for two reasons, Roy says: “To keep it alive and so messages can be passed, such as a church’s special event.”

The test helps ensure that if a disaster occurred operators would know where to check-in on the radio and who to contact.

Getting connected

One of the important things to know about amateur radio is how accessible it has become in the last few years, Roy says, adding it’s fairly easy to join the network.

“There have been two major changes to ham radio usage. First is they have dropped Morse code requirements. The second is that it’s relatively inexpensive equipment. Equipment (cost) has gone down tremendously,” Roy said.

The Rev. Thom Street staffs a booth during the ministry expo at the 2008 Florida Annual Conference Event. Street is the net controller for the Florida Conference’s growing amateur radio network. Photo by Mary Lee Downey. Photo #08-0912. Web photo only.

The start-up cost is roughly $150 for a simple hand-held radio. Ham radio operators must also be licensed, and there are three classifications, which determine the frequencies operators are able to use.  Obtaining a license includes taking a certification test, offered through several different outlets, including the Internet.

Roy concedes it’s an exciting hobby. “Disaster recovery planning can be fun,” Roy said. “Especially if you like cool gadgets.”

Roy says groups are already committed to getting involved in the network. He recently met with a youth group in Jacksonville that is interested in starting a ham radio network for its church. Even if a church doesn’t have a radio operator or people willing to get licensed, it is still possible to have an operator, Roy says.

“I have been encouraging congregations who have no licensed amateur radio operator in their membership to use this as discipleship, by finding a ham in the community who is not active in a church who would agree to function as their contact person,” Roy said.

The Rev. Thom Street is net controller for the conference network. As pastor of First United Methodist Church of Moore Haven in Glades County, a church that has been heavily involved in recovery from Hurricane Wilma, he agrees every congregation should be connected.

Street became a licensed operator in 1979 and has been doing emergency management through ham radio for more than 20 years, including after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He and his son started two amateur radio emergency services in their county, one of which works with the U.S Department of Homeland Security. 

Street staffed a booth during the ministry expo at the annual conference session in May and encouraged congregations to get involved. 

“We want them (radio operators) to know they can do something more, something to serve the kingdom of God,” he said.

AMEN Radio can be accessed at http://www.amenradio.org. Ham operators who are interested in joining the conference network may contact Pam Garrison, manager of the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery office, at 800-282-8011, extension 148, or pgarrison@flumc.org.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Downey is a freelance writer based in Kissimmee, Fla., and director of programming and evangelism at First United Methodist Church, Kissimmee.

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