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Radio operators practice for disaster

July 15, 2009
They came to Sycamore Springs Park in English, threw up a large tent and a couple of makeshift antennas, and began talking on their radios, testing their ability to be ready in a matter of minutes for any communication emergency that may arise.

The Southern Indiana Tri-County Amateur Radio Club has it down to an art. They practice often and take part in annual exercises, communicating with other radio operators all over the country.

Don Hensley, a member of the Southern Indiana Tri-County Amateur Radio Club, monitors a radio signal at the annual Field Day for amateur radio operators at Sycamore Springs Park near English. Photo by Lee Cable
The exercises, held once a year, are called Field

Days and are set up to work as many stations as possible on all amateur radio bands in an effort to learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions.

At Sycamore Springs Park in late June, the Tri-County Amateur Radio Club set up five stations, or radios with operators, and went about their business as if a major disaster had knocked out all other types of communications in the area. A small gasoline-powered generator was used to power some of the radios and a set of jumper cables hooked to the battery on a nearby pickup truck was used to operate others.

"If everything goes down, this is the way we will send and receive information," Darren Echterling, club president, said. "We're using no commercial power. We're operating as if the electrical grid has stopped working, for whatever reason. And through these Field Days, we can determine what areas we can communicate with and what frequencies we can use to make contacts."

The exercise, which requires the operators to be on the air for 24 hours straight, are held across the United States and have strict guidelines. Everything is documented, and radio clubs are graded on their ability to make contacts and keep records of each operator with whom they are able to communicate.

After getting some of the radios on the air, Echterling, Chuck Hensley, club vice president, and his brother, Don, man the radios while Chris Bean and James Cornelison continue to work on antennas. One is just a wire strung between two trees. Another is on a short pole supported by two metal fence posts. Then, the men work at raising a 20-foot metal tower with an antenna attached to the top.

When the antennas are all on line, the team, using meters and a conglomerate of electronic equipment, work on reducing interference and static and fine-tune the signals coming in and transmitting through the antennas.

All the while, the radio operators are communicating with other units across the country and logging the time, frequency and call sign of every contact.

Don Hensley slowly turned a large knob on one of the radios until he received a signal that he considered strong enough, then keys his microphone and tried to make contact with a person.

"We're a five alpha," he said to a person somewhere in Tennessee — meaning they have five radio operators. "We're operating on emergency power."

"QSA," responded a voice on the radio, meaning he understands. "I'm a one alpha (one operator), operating on emergency power, in east Tennessee."

The information is logged, then the process is repeated on another frequency. Each contact the group makes earns it a point which will be added to the final tally when the log books are sent to the Amateur Radio Relay League which monitors and grades the results of the field days. Each entry in the log should coincide with the log of the operator contacted. The group can also earn extra points by meeting other requirements, such as 100 points for operating entirely on non-commercial power. The club can earn another 100 points by setting up and operating at a public place like a school campus or park during the field day or by offering an educational activity to the general public. Other bonus points can be earned but are more technical in nature and difficult for the novice to comprehend.

"There's things like fast-scan and slow-scan TV," Echterling said. "We do message handling the same as the military does. We can transmit to police patrol cars and even get on the Internet. We can track satellites and the weather and pull up images from Google Earth. At home, I am set up to operate over three days on gel batteries in case power is lost. I also have a generator set up in my garage. Most of us can just keep operating if there's a major disaster, and that's the main reason we're here, to make sure we have the training and experience to keep local officials, and the general public, informed in case something goes wrong."

Kent Barrow, Crawford County's Emergency Man-agement Agency director, is also an amateur radio operator and was on hand to see the group in action.

"Anytime all other communications go down, we'll utilize the amateur radio operators," he said. "We already used them during the high winds from the hurricane. And when severe weather approaches, the National Weather Service brings in an amateur radio operator to have back-up communications. It's really important for Crawford County, and all counties, to have this kind of back up."

Anyone wishing to be an amateur radio operator can contact the club at 1-317-677-8232. The radio club sponsors free classes for radio operators once a month.

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