Hitting the Airwaves When Disaster Strikes

By Matt Windsor

Using the latest radio gear and a repeater antenna mounted atop UAB Hospital's Jefferson Tower, J. Vann Martin and other members of the UAB-based Healthcare Community Amateur Radio Club can keep the lines of communication flowing in the event of a disaster.

From the roof of Jefferson Tower, 17 stories and more than 280 feet high, you can see for miles in all directions. For decades, the building has been the signature piece of the UAB Hospital campus and a landmark visible all around Birmingham. It now houses medical offices rather than patients, but in the aftermath of the catastrophic storms that swept through Alabama in April, the old veteran made another significant contribution to Birmingham health care—as an antenna.

This radio drama begins with another natural disaster and an amateur radio enthusiast known as W4JVM. “After Hurricane Katrina, responders such as the police, fire and rescue, and EMA [emergency management agencies] were severely handicapped because they couldn’t communicate,” says J. Vann Martin, director of facilities and capital projects for the UAB Health System. “In a disaster situation, particularly a natural disaster, landlines and cell phones often stop working.” 

Martin, better known in the world of amateur radio, or “ham” radio, by his call sign, W4JVM, is the president of the Healthcare Community Amateur Radio Club (HCARC). The newly formed club has established a command center in UAB Hospital that can coordinate care at all major hospitals in the Birmingham area using rooftop antennas on Jefferson Tower and other locations.

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Local Calls

Licensed amateur radio operators are the perfect addition to the emergency management structure, Martin points out. They can continue broadcasting on battery power in even the most catastrophic conditions, he says, and if their onboard batteries go dead, a pair of jumper cables and a car battery will solve the problem. In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started offering grants to health-care organizations willing to purchase and install radio equipment that would keep them in the communication loop in case of an emergency—if they could find volunteer operators to run the radios. Martin, a 20-year veteran of amateur radio, jumped at the chance to take part.

By October 2010, Martin had received funding and established a well-equipped radio room in UAB Hospital’s Russell Building. Then he put out the call for interested volunteers—both amateur radio veterans and newcomers who wanted to get involved. Thirty people showed up for the first meeting, and before the month was out, the UAB group had led an emergency drill with eight area hospitals to simulate response to a natural disaster.

A Place for Radio

“In the event of a disaster, particularly a natural disaster, one of our biggest challenges is to know where to send patients,” Martin says. “What is their acuity level—who goes to UAB versus another hospital and how will EMA workers know when a hospital cannot accept more patients if normal communications are down? Without a trained health-care community radio club, you could be in trouble if the telephone and Internet stop working. But now there is radio equipment in every hospital in the area. I could walk into any of these facilities if I’m needed and use their equipment.”

When tornadoes descended on Alabama in April, Martin and his fellow operators went into action. More than 200 volunteers around the city provided emergency communication between local and national responders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and relief organizations such as the Red Cross, Martin says.

For more than a month, ham radio operators ferried food and supplies to relief stations in Pleasant Grove, Pratt City, Fultondale, Cordova, Cullman, and other devastated cities. They used car-mounted radios to provide up-to-the-minute reports to central command about conditions and needed supplies. Martin personally assisted with the delivery of 42 truckloads of supplies—everything from grills and diapers to food and feminine hygiene products.

“The last thing you want to do is have a truckload of supplies and deliver them to the wrong location,” Martin says. “We communicated on an hourly basis for four weeks straight. It was a very real test that proved that all of the training we do on a monthly basis really pays off.” Many of those reports were relayed through a newly installed antenna on top of UAB’s Jefferson Tower—which took the place of a key backup amateur radio repeater antenna that went down on April 27. “We took equipment from our club and re-created the destroyed tower,” Martin says. “We were able to do some rewiring, change some frequencies, and get it up and running.”

Surfing the Waves

Like many of his fellow operators, Martin doesn’t have a background in engineering—just a fascination with radio gear, the unique properties of radio waves, and the chance to meet new people around the world. “Many amateur operators are doctors, office workers, construction workers,” he says. “They just find it interesting.”

Martin got involved more than 20 years ago after he read an article describing how amateur radio operators could build their own antennas, learn electrical theory, and even communicate with astronauts in space. Many astronauts are hams, and several have taken their radio units into orbit, Martin says. Amateur operators have even bounced their signals off the moon. “I’ve not personally been able to talk with the space shuttle, but I know several who have,” Martin says. His own favorite long-distance call was a chat with a yachtsman cruising in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

What's Your Sign?

Each licensed amateur radio operator is given a unique call sign that identifies him or her on the air. Part of the sign is a number identifying the region where operators first received their licenses. The “4” in J. Vann Martin’s call sign, W4JVM, designates him as an operator in the Federal Communications Commission’s Southeast region, which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Only operators who have reached the Extra class may have a four-unit call sign (such as James Spann’s WO4W), and all the available combinations have long been used up, which means many newer “Extras” such as Martin have to keep their five-unit signs.

Getting involved in amateur radio isn’t difficult, Martin says. “You can buy a book or seek out information on the Internet, study for two or three weeks, and pass the Technician exam.” Operators who hold the entry-level Technician radio license can communicate on several popular frequencies and get their own call sign. A few more months of dedicated study are all that is required to earn the remaining General and Extra licenses that allow operators to communicate on other frequencies, broadcast at wattages sufficient to talk to people around the world, and acquire other on-air privileges, Martin says.

The rise of cell phones and personal computers was widely forecast to be a major blow to amateur radio, and for several years the hobby was in decline, Martin says. “Nobody thought they needed it with Facebook, Twitter, and the wide band of the Internet.” But in recent years, he has seen a surge of interest. “Part of that is because of the sun cycle,” Martin notes. “The more sunspot activity you have, the farther the signals will travel, and that leads you to be able to talk to a wider area of the world. Now that the sunspot cycle is back up, I have some colleagues who are regularly talking to people in Switzerland and many other interesting places around the globe.”

Licensing tests are offered regularly at special Red Cross facilities in Birmingham and Shelby County. Many amateur clubs, including the HCARC, offer training and study materials. “You can spend anywhere from $2,000 to $40,000 on equipment,” Martin adds—including radio gear and an antenna that may be between 20 and 200 feet high. “But you can be just as committed by putting a radio in your car for less than $1,000.”

Storm Stories

All amateur operators are offered training as weather spotters, Martin says. And many take advantage of car-mounted radios to provide field reports to the National Weather Service, which passes that information on to TV and radio stations during severe weather. “When you hear meteorologists on TV saying, ‘We have reports of a funnel cloud on the ground in Chelsea,’ chances are they didn’t get that information from somebody walking down the street, but rather from a trained weather spotter who is also a ham operator,” Martin says. “Specialized weather training is offered to know how to stay on the safe side of a storm, for example, and how to recognize cloud formations and lightning formations, and how to estimate wind speed. During a storm there may be several people in their vehicles acting as spotters.”

Martin is quick to point out the difference between amateur radio equipment and the CBs that many people know from movies such as Smokey and the Bandit. “CBs use a frequency that is open to anybody—no license is required,” Martin says. “They don’t function in the same way as an amateur radio. They run strictly on line of sight, so they have a range of less than five miles. Most amateur radios use repeaters that give us around a 50- to 60-mile range, usually. If you have a tower that is high enough, you can go even further.”

The HCARC recently installed its first repeater antenna, which broadcasts on the frequency 443.175, PL tone 131.8 positive off-set. Martin plans to add more powerful equipment in the coming years, and to continue to build interest in amateur radio at UAB. “Of the 40 or so people that attend our monthly club meetings, about 25 percent are non-licensed operators,” he notes. “Our goal is to grow this into an even more valuable resource for the community. It’s a passion.”


More Information

To learn more about the Healthcare Community Amateur Radio Club, visit http://hc-arc.org or contact J. Vann Martin at jvmartin@uabmc.edu or (205) 975-0069.

Learn more about amateur radio from the national American Radio Relay League at www.arrl.org.

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