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Amateur Radio, Civil War History Can Help When Modern Technology Fails

Thursday, March 16, 2006

by Katherine Heerbrandt

A woman trapped in her attic in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina managed to get a cell phone call out for help, as water rose in her home. But her cell phone wasn’t her savior – amateur, or ‘‘ham,” radio was.

The woman called the Red Cross, which used ham radio to contact an operator in Oregon. The radio message went on to at least three other operators around the country in order to dispatch a rescue in New Orleans.

It’s a story that Mike Barrett, who helps coordinate a network of amateur radio operator volunteers through the Military Amateur Radio System (MARS), tells to demonstrate a point.

Radio communications may be considered low-tech in today’s world of modern technology. Amateur radio operators have been around for nearly a century, yet governments, emergency agencies and hospitals still rely on them when modern communications methods are not working.

Looking to the past to solve today’s problems is also the message George Wunderlich, director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in downtown Frederick, sends to his students.

‘‘The problems haven’t changed ...if you are wounded on the battlefield of Antietam, or you are sick in an isolated apartment in New Orleans after the hurricane, you are in the exact same dire strait,” he said.

Wunderlich has taken his knowledge of history on the road in the last few years to teach high-ranking military officials, doctors and federal administrators how their counterparts in history managed emergencies and disasters.

‘‘It’s funny. They call it ‘thinking outside of the box,’” he said. ‘‘To me, it is the exact opposite. It is climbing to the bottom of the box.”

The concepts Wunderlich teaches were gleaned from his work not only as an historian, but as a former firefighter and police officer. Wunderlich teaches self-reliance without modern technology — if communications and transportation are unreliable, or unavailable in an emergency, responders must rely on wits.

‘‘The first thing that happens is you have to rely on the way it was done before: written notes and word of mouth. You give the message to the first three ambulance drivers going down the road and hope they get it through,” he said.

During his course, Wunderlich often encounters skeptics. One of those skeptics wound up in the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina as part of military operations. The student e-mailed Wunderlich, saying though he initially thought Wunderlich’s suggestions were crazy, his post-Katrina experience changed in his mind.

‘‘He wrote, ‘I am in 1862 down here. We have no helicopters, we have no trucks because of debris on the roads and we’re living on our own wits. Yes, this course made a difference in my life,’” Wunderlich said.

Wunderlich has approached Frederick County officials about offering the information to them and got the nod just a few weeks ago to put together a program.

‘‘I see us assisting Frederick County by helping them with issues of command structure and communications, and to help them understand the basis of emergency management preparedness: how to manage under stress, and how to promote good policy and decision-making throughout all of the ranks,” he said.

‘Hamming’ it up

Amateur radio volunteers are civilians working quietly in the background to communicate when cell phones are useless, landlines are busy or regular radio traffic is overwhelmed.

Though more than 600 amateur radio operators are licensed in Frederick County, only 65 are involved in emergency preparedness work.

Roy Bates of Brunswick is part of the Radio Amateur Operator Emergency Service. He and other volunteers work in shifts during emergencies to help local government agencies get supplies and equipment. They act as a relay system, using operators locally or across the country, depending on the situation.

During Hurricane Isabel, local volunteers worked three shifts of about 36 hours. They coordinated and passed along information about power outages and road blockages to those in charge.

‘‘We don’t dispatch police or firefighters, we take on the less critical stuff,” Bates said. ‘‘But if they need 50 cases of diapers at a shelter, we let the right people know. Or, if school buses are taking the uninjured folks away from the scene to a shelter, we can talk to the shelter and help coordinate that effort.”

Based out of the Emergency Communications building on Montevue Lane in Frederick, three different groups of licensed amateur radio operators train year-round. They spend hours simulating emergency message handling in times of severe weather, terrorist attacks or other emergencies, in preparation for the real thing.

They have a cabinet of batteries that will last up to four days to operate their radios, and their station is equipped with battery-powered lights, too.

Fire and police personnel, Bates said, often count on support from radio operators to do their jobs when they are so busy they cannot handle the flow of information and requests. The groups work together to ensure all messages reach the proper people.

Bates said most of the volunteers have a simple reason for doing the job: ‘‘We’re Americans. We want the system to run right.”