In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, hospitals in New Orleans found themselves surrounded by water, without power and cut off from the outside world. Phone systems were down; the power to cell phone towers was knocked out.
Similar problems were encountered a few weeks later by those in the path of Hurricane Rita.
Faced with the fact that the latest in communications technology failed, hospitals around the state are preparing for the next emergency by turning to technology that has been around for about 100 years. As part of a multi-tiered redundant emergency communications plan, all hospitals have or will purchase ham radio sets. The first group of hospital personnel from facilities around Acadiana received basic amateur radio operator's licenses Aug. 26 after a full day of training at Lafayette General Medical Center's Grant Mollet Center.
The communications device of last resort was a natural choice, said LGMC ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Bourgeois, a ham radio enthusiast for the past 40 years. "Ham operators are the only ones during and the first ones up after a major calamity," he said.
One of the problems faced during the recent hurricanes was that emergency personnel weren't able to talk to each other after telephones and cell phones went out, because each agency's radios are on different frequencies, Bourgeois said.
"What we have over and above what community and emergency responders have is a much wider range of frequencies, as well as a much wider range of operating modes," he added. "Ham radio communications include the short wave spectrum, but also includes many other portions of the spectrum."
The idea of using ham radios during an emergency isn't new. "Amateur radio has been involved with emergencies in Lafayette for a long time," said Roland Guidry, president of the Acadiana Amateur Radio Association.
Volunteers have staffed ham radio sets at emergency centers in the past. The new plan simply builds on that concept.
One reason ham radios are able to maintain communications when other modes of communication go out is that the signal reaches a greater distance, Guidry said.
"We have 'repeaters' located on towers. With a simple, hand-held transmitter, we can transmit to the tower and it can go out 50 to 80 miles."
There are three repeaters located on cell phone towers in Acadiana, Guidry said. They continue to transmit after cell towers lose power because the longer range of the signal allows them to use generators to power the repeaters, while cell phone companies must use battery power. "Cell phones require so many towers they can't afford to put generators at every cell tower."
Ham radio signals can be relayed from town to town, out of state and around the world, Guidry said.
There's another advantage to using ham radios in an emergency, Guidry said. "Cell phones require that you know someone's number. With a ham radio, you can go through a repeater and ask if anyone's listening. Someone can say, 'I'm here.'"
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