If you lose service on your personal cell phone, you may just curse and try your call again later. But what happens when emergency agencies and hospitals lose their vital communications?
They call on a group of amateur radio enthusiasts who can relay messages — Hall County’s Amateur Radio Emergency Service group.
Michael Crowder, emergency coordinator of the local chapter, said his group can help keep the lines of communications open for the Hall County Emergency Management Agency, Northeast Georgia Medical Center and other groups when the physical communication lines are not functioning.
“We all coordinate because in the event of a natural disaster, things quit working,” Crowder said. “...It’s almost mind-boggling how much worse disasters could be without emergency communicators crawling out of the wreckage and handling communications until they are restored.”
Crowder’s responsibilities include not only coordinating the local group with the area agencies that would need their help, but also with other amateur radio groups in the area. The local group has signed mutual aid agreements with several local emergency agencies and nine other ARES groups.
The Hall ARES has more than doubled in size over the past year, but Crowder’s goal is to expand even more.
Crowder said that some 100 members will be needed to ensure the group can provide emergency communications during a disaster or other system outage. He hopes to hit the goal by the end of 2010.
Crowder not only is recruiting the 600-plus people who currently hold an amateur or “ham” radio license in Hall County, the group also is seeking to train and license new ones.
It’s not all that difficult, or expensive, to get started in ham radio. Hall’s ARES group offers classes at the cost of $15, which includes the $10 testing fee and the manual valued at $20 to $30. You don’t even have to own your own equipment to join the group, Crowder said, though less than $200 can get an enthusiast started with basic equipment.
“Licensing is just the beginning of the process ... you have to understand the regulations. That’s the majority of the first test — what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do,” he said. Learning the rest comes through trial and error, he added.
The group also offers tutorials on its Web site and plans to expand its online offerings even more to accommodate people who aren’t able to travel to a class. Crowder said that makes the hobby more accessible to those who can’t attend a class due to physical limitations or don’t have transportation.
“Even if they’re home bound, they can work as a relay station,” Crowder said. “It’s great for someone who wants to do a public service but has some limitations or inability to travel.”
People of any age can become licensed ham radio operators, Crowder said. The ages of the Hall ARES members range from 10 to 80, he said.