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Ham radio network stayed tuned in to snowstorm
Local operators measured conditions, filed reports to county emergency officials
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When the snow fell atop John R. Brandon's North Hall County home, he opened the door, moved outside, and recorded the weather with precision.

He observed the precipitation type and strength as it descended. He measured snow depth, and described how it was coming down, heavy or light. He also watched how, if at all, ice developed.

Then Brandon returned to his home, waited for the top of the hour and monitored his radio.

The voice on the other end belonged to Michael Crowder. As emergency coordinator of Hall County Amateur Radio Emergency Service, Crowder led an organized dialogue.

Nearly 30 ham radio operators first tuned in along with Brandon. Each person issued precise weather reports when called. The pattern continued every 60 minutes for 18 hours straight.

"Even though we're amateurs, we handle (what we do) professionally," Brandon said.

The volunteer communications effort took place as part of Hall County's activation of its emergency operations center during the storm period Monday.

In all, 38 ARES members funneled weather information to Crowder from their homes scattered across Hall and neighboring counties. Crowder, working on radio equipment inside Hall County's Crescent Drive operations center, relayed the field reports directly into a centralized computer for officials' review.

The knowledge supplied quick looks at how National Weather Service reports based on models stacked up against the reality witnessed on the streets.

"It gives us a snapshot view. We put that information on a map and that shows what's going on," said David Kimbrell, Hall County Fire Services fire chief and director of emergency management.

"The forecast kept telling us we'd get 5 to 7 inches. They were telling us exactly the amounts that we got. It's great for them to be able to confirm the forecast for us."

In just a couple years, the nonprofit group has grown from 14 registered radio operators to 70 members. Each is trained how to communicate during periods of crisis, Crowder said. Additionally, many operators are trained to be weather spotters through the NWS's Skywarn program.

Severe weather is the most typical reason for the group's networking, but widespread power or communications losses are additional events ARES is prepared to handle.

"When everything doesn't work just perfectly with modern technology, our technology fills that gap," Crowder said. "There is certain information we do need, and there's a whole lot of information we don't need. We don't want people to inundate the system with clutter."

Crowder was contacted two days before the storm about the possibility of Hall County's emergency operations center activating. By 5 p.m. Sunday, he was told to pack his bags.

The radio coordinator alerted fellow operators to the broadcast planned for midnight. Then he loaded his sleeping bag, a pillow and a couple days worth of food and clothing into his car.

"We might be there two hours or two weeks, according to how the situation develops," Crowder said. "We were prepared to be there for at least 48 hours."

Informal radio traffic started with participating operators checking in. A "formal net" soon began, with participants filing reports with confidence throughout Hall as well as Banks, Lumpkin and Gwinnett counties.

"That gave us more situational awareness, because snow doesn't stop at the county line," Crowder said.

The radio traffic continued after the center halted its operations sometime after 5 p.m.

When 6 p.m. arrived, Crowder broadcast his final dispatch to his ARES colleagues.

"‘We are officially closing the net. The (emergency operations center) has closed down,'" Crowder told them. "Then I thanked everybody ... I feel good about all our people. It makes all the drilling, practicing and training we do worthwhile to see how appreciated we are."


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