Wichita amateur radio operators can offer key link in emergencies
Jan 06, 2013 (The Wichita Eagle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
For Mark Spaulding and other amateur radio operators, communication is key.
The retired Beech demonstration pilot is a member of the Tec-Ni-Chat Amateur Radio Club and part of a group of about 30 amateur radio operators that volunteer as part of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) for Sedgwick County Emergency Management.
"The important thing in volunteering is to get outside of yourself and do something useful for society," said Spaulding, who received his amateur radio license in 1999.
Spaulding admits a lot of people don't understand ham radio, but says RACES consists of people from all backgrounds and generations.
Retirees generally have the most time to dedicate, he said.
Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service was developed in 1952 during the Red Scare and fears of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.But with the Cold War long ended, RACES operators now mostly focus on local emergencies, including natural disasters.
"They're an important part of our ability to communicate in emergencies," said Randall Duncan, Sedgwick County emergency management director. "They've always shown flexibility and adaptability in providing communication, sometimes when more traditional means of communication aren't available."
Sedgwick County's top three vulnerabilities are flooding, severe storms in the winter and spring and tornados, Duncan said. RACES operators must be licensed with the Federal Communications Commission and complete training and Federal Emergency Management Agency exams.
There are hundreds of licensed amateur radio operators in the Wichita area, according to the Federal Communications Commission's website. Several amateur radio clubs exist throughout the Wichita area.
In the event of a natural disaster or emergency, RACES has the ability to send operators into the field as storm spotters and to report damage. Those operators also have radios with GPS that can be viewed at the Emergency Operation Center, 714 N. Main, as a safety measure.
"Storm spotting is really a lifesaving function," Spaulding said.
"You hear about all these places with huge numbers of casualties because they didn't get warnings, and that's what we're here for, to provide that warning."
Some of the RACES equipment can also send video over radio waves.
The group holds weekly meetings and participates in disaster simulations in order to prepare.
In many disasters, primary methods of communication, such as cellphones and landlines, don't have the capacity to handle an entire city trying to call at the same time, Duncan said.
Additionally, in events like a tornado, cellphone towers can be damaged or destroyed.
In addition to its Emergency Operation Center, RACES also is back up communication for local hospitals and other community hubs. There is also a mobile unit.
There are several layers to communication in a disaster, Duncan said. The local office uses outdoor sirens, local media, the emergency alert system and the NOAA weather radio.
Duncan said that in the past 26 years, he can't remember an officially declared communication emergency in Sedgwick County, but RACES has still proven useful in storms and other events.
"We're very glad they're interested enough to help support us," Duncan said of the volunteers. "It's wonderful to have them help out."
Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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