The ability to communicate during emergencies, like Hurricane Irma , is critical. When phones and the internet go down, there’s something else South Florida emergency operations centers, or EOC’s, can turn to: amateur radio operators.
It’s sometimes referred to as "ham" radio, and the operators are sometimes called “hams.”
In Broward County, there are ham radio antennas mounted on all of the hurricane shelters and some of the hospitals, ready to be activated. There’s also a room full of ham radios at the Broward County EOC.
Jeff Stahl, coordinator for Broward County’s amateur radio emergency services, recently spoke with WLRN’s Peter Haden about the county's communications plan “when all else fails.”
WLRN: How does Broward County use amateur radio in its emergency plan?
JEFF STAHL: From the ham radio room at the Broward County emergency operations center, we talk to [the ham radio operators at shelters] to provide backup communication if the regular communications fail. If the cell phones go down, if they lose all their power -- as happened in Irma -- we can communicate via radio anything they need to communicate back to the EOC.
How many ham operators are at the Broward County EOC during emergencies?
Usually there are about eight people there. We have we have about eight or nine radios for different things. But we also have to get sleep too. So we have to have some shifts. We put in 2,145 person-hours of time during Irma. We calculated it at the Florida state rate for volunteer hours. We put it over $48,000 worth of time.
We have fun with radio when we’re not doing emergency communications, but when we get serious we get professional. Even though we're called amateur radio, our communications are professional when we're serving the public.
Can you give me an example of some of the communications that were sent out during Irma?
Well, shelter status for one thing. Are they running on commercial power or are they on emergency power? How many people are in the shelter? At one of the city emergency operations centers, their generator stopped. Cell service was out at the time as well. So they had no cell phones and they had no power. There was no way for them to communicate except via amateur radio. So we took the data over the radio and relayed that.
We also had some of our operators who had to stay home for various reasons. They had pets, they had special needs children, they had special needs parents, they can't deploy to a facility.
They keep their eyes and ears open and they listen on the frequency. One of them spotted a tornado. He called us and said, “There's a tornado.” We got in contact with the National Hurricane Center, and in less than a minute that was on the crawler on the TV.
Are there ham operators helping in Puerto Rico?
Yeah. The American Radio Relay League actually solicited for people to go down there, take their radios with them and help with the communications.
There was a lot of traffic coming out of Puerto Rico and the other islands that were hit by both of those hurricanes. And there were operator networks handling all that traffic coming out and relaying it, just saying “these people are OK” and getting that word to their families back here in the States.
What's the most misunderstood thing about ham radio, Jeff?
Well, I think people think that it's old, it's useless, nobody does it anymore. That couldn't be farther from the truth.
I’ve been doing this for 47 years and I still have stuff to learn. There are classes all the time if you want to get a license. We set up radios at the Boy Scout camp, Camp Tanna Ketah in Martin County. They bring in scouts that are working on their radio merit badge. We show them amateur radio. We let them talk on the radios. They have to talk for 10 minutes to somebody to get their merit badge.
We try to attract some young people in this hobby. Everybody’s starting to look like me, with the gray hair and the medical problems. So we're trying to get some younger people interested.
Jeff Stahl is a member of the Boca Raton Amateur Radio Association.
To learn more about amateur radio, visit the National Association for Amateur Radio.