Ham radio operators tune in hurricane help

Richard Webb, an amateur radio operator, was asleep on his air mattress at University Hospital in New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina when he was awakened at 5 a.m. by a hospital administrator.

As Mr. Webb tells it, "He told me we had a lady who was in labor, who had swum five blocks in that dirty, nasty water to the hospital because she saw lights there - people with flashlights moving around." Medical personnel said the baby needed to be delivered by caesarean section. But the hospital had limited power, no running water, no way to sterilize instruments, no way to perform such surgery. "We figured we had two hours to get her medevacked out of there" before the lives of mother and child would be in danger. "So I got on the radio and was talking to a fellow who was with the Coast Guard auxiliary in Cleveland, Ohio. I was working with him to arrange a medevac."

Choppers did arrive in time, Webb says. The woman and another patient in need were evacuated successfully. Because the hospital had no landing pad, the two had to be lifted out in baskets lowered from the helicopters.

Webb, who lived in nearby Slidell, La., had been summoned to his hurricane post by the hospital's head of emergency management. He's one of about 750 amateur radio operators, or "hams," who have been in and out of the five hurricane states since day one: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and parts of northern Florida and Texas, where evacuees are taking shelter. At least a thousand other hams throughout the nation have been involved in some way, relaying messages or assigning hams to various locations. They're all volunteers, all unpaid, and they do what they do because they want to. They train for disaster work; their FCC radio licenses mandate public service.

In typical disaster conditions, agencies like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), and local government bodies call on a state ham leader for volunteers when usual channels of communication are down or jammed.

Katrina was different: It was far more vast. For the first time, the nonprofit American Radio Relay League (ARRL) set up a website and database to facilitate assigning hams.

Pamela Taylor, who works as an events manager in Hampton Beach, N.H., got a call from FEMA and headed south on Sept. 9. She was deployed to a shelter in Ocean Springs, Miss., near Gulfport, before moving to New Orleans. The shelter was a church, well-supplied and maintained, with an abundance of volunteers. Her job was to radio for special needs, anything from a doctor to paper plates. Nights sometimes brought an emergency or two when a resident had to be removed, usually for alcohol or drug problems.

Hams worked with the National Weather Service before and during the hurricane. They still are receiving and transmitting messages in shelters and other locations, alerting emergency agencies that a community needs water, that an elderly woman needs an ambulance, or that sanitary conditions are in crisis.

An estimated 600,000 FCC-licensed amateur radio operators live in the United States; about 162,000 are members of the ARRL, which was founded in 1904 and is located here in Newington, Conn. Nearby Hartford is where Hiram Percy Maxim, the father of amateur radio, experimented at sending messages across the city and then relaying them across the country. Long before e-mail, there was amateur radio. It evolved over the last century so that today, ham operators communicate with one another around the world. Allen Pitts, for example, the ARRL's media-relations manager, says he has spoken to fellow hams in 213 foreign countries or "political entities."

That's the hobby part of hamdom. The serious and vital part is seen in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). Trained ham operators are ready with their "go kits" of equipment, batteries, and energy bars. ARRL coordinates the work of the emergency operators. Hams were at ground zero in New York within hours, they were in Florida for the multiple hurricanes last year, and they handled communications in the Northeast blackout of 2003.

Hams are volunteers. When they set sail for disasters, they pay their own way. Sometimes employers give them a paid leave or reimburse expenses. Hams' sacrifices are real, but the rewards are often intangible.

Mark Conklin of Tulsa got time off as a sales manager for an appliance company to relay messages. At first he handled communications between the state department of emergency management and the highway patrol.

Next he was assigned to the 1,200 evacuees transplanted to an Oklahoma National Guard camp. At the camp, he talked to an elderly woman who was crying because she was happy - "communications" had been able to get a pair of glasses for her. "For the first time in a week," she said, "I can see."

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