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Amateur radio network tunes in help for storm-stricken areas

Amateur radio network tunes in help for storm-stricken areas

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Amateur radio network tunes in help for storm-stricken areas

Aug. 17, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0346}

NOTE:  This article was produced by United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., and distributed Aug. 10 to its subscribers.

An e-Review Feature
By John Gordon**

LAKELAND — When telephones, cell phones and even police radios quit working after a devastating hurricane hit Florida, United Methodist amateur radio operators became a vital link to the outside world.

Now, AMEN (Amateur Methodist Emergency Network) Radio wants to extend its mission further by offering lifesaving medical assistance via the airwaves.

LAKELAND — The Rev. Tom Norton is hoping AMEN (Amateur Methodist Emergency Network) Radio can expand its services during disasters to help with medical emergencies. Norton is disaster response coordinator for the Gulf Central District of the Florida Conference and pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. A UMNS photo by John Gordon, Photo #05-224.

"I don't think the importance (of amateur radio) can be overstated," said the Rev. Tom Norton, disaster response coordinator for the Gulf Central District of the Florida Conference. Norton is pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.

Ham radio operators from the Florida Conference provided emergency communications after Hurricane Charley battered the state last year. Telephone service, in some areas, was intermittent for at least two weeks.

A base station, operating with the call sign K4UMC, was established in the conference offices in Lakeland. Other radio operators drove into the areas damaged by the storm and relayed messages.

"You're lost, basically, because you don't know where to run to. You can't speak to anyone," said Becky Castillo, whose home was damaged.

"The people desperately needed to be able to communicate," she said.

Not being able to communicate makes storm victims feel isolated, said Anne Burkholder, director of Connectional Ministries for the conference.

"It heightens the fear," she said. "There's a real sense of security when people can reach out to each other and check to make sure everyone is all right."

In Charley's aftermath, amateur radio operators relayed damage reports, provided police and fire communications in Port Charlotte and coordinated the delivery of truckloads of relief supplies.

But Norton felt they could do more, such as assist storm victims in medical emergencies. "Say they're pinned under a telephone pole, by lumber, or something that's lying across them," he said, "and they (radio operators) are not sure how to extract them from that."

So Norton began working with Judy Keats, with the University of South Florida Health Science Center in Tampa. Their goal is to allow doctors to log in to their computers at home or work, talk to amateur radio operators and give them emergency medical advice.

The idea came after a hurricane that hit Honduras.

"We had a medical missionary there who wanted to consult with a physician, and he was a ham radio operator," Keats said. "But he didn't have means of finding a doctor."

The project will require specialized software to link doctors to radio operators on the Internet. Protocols are also being developed for doctors to offer medical advice miles away from a disaster.

Details probably won't be finalized for the cutting-edge, medicine-by-radio program before the end of this year's hurricane season. But Keats and Norton are optimistic the logistics can be worked out in the months to come.

"If you're that person that's injured in the field, and you have someone standing over you that could possibly help you, but doesn't really know how, and you can contact a medical technician that does know how, it can save your life," Norton said.

A potential problem is that amateur radio clubs are facing a reduction in their ranks. The hobby is losing enthusiasts to computer chat rooms and other forms of instant global communication. Norton has been recruiting new radio operators to help fill the need for emergency communications and, he hopes, medical assistance.

"Most of the people that grew up understanding amateur radio are dying off, so we need more and more people to be a part," he said.

Marilyn Swanson, storm recovery project director for the conference, said ham radio operators are needed especially in a state that was hit by four hurricanes last year.

"I think the anxiety levels really increase when they're not able to communicate with others to find out what's going on," she said.

So as Methodist radio operators raise their antennas to the sky and get ready for the next disaster, they see a spiritual connection to their efforts.

Said Norton: "The AMEN radio logo helps remind us that prayer, like radio waves, enters any situation with the power of light."


This article relates to Disaster Response.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.