Emergency Communications in Rural Maine- Part Two

Published: Feb. 20, 2018 at 5:26 PM EST
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In emergencies when traditional public safety communications are down, there are alternatives in place as a backup plan.

One of those systems involves hobbyists who dedicate their time and skills to helping emergency responders.

Ham radio is made up of amateur radio operators.

While we may think enhancements in digital technology have rendered their service obsolete, their knowledge and skill set remain as important as ever.

"Radio operators tend to be a little more technical-oriented with their equipment. Whereas fire, police, and EMS, you hand them a radio, you show them how to turn it on, which channel you should be on and send them on their way. Amateur radio operators have to take a pretty extensive series of tests to get different levels of licensure," said Dale Rowley, Waldo County EMA Director.

A number of Maine counties' Emergency Management Agencies, such as Waldo and Kennebec, have partnered with local ham radio volunteers to prepare for a communications blackout.

"When all communications are down, that's when amateur radio comes into play."

Richard Beausoleil was the former Director of the Kennebec EMA and now works as Communications Officer for his local fire department in Whitefield.

"A lot of times failures happen in the public safety world because there's too much traffic on the radio and they can't get through. Well we have our own frequencies and our own system that we can operate on that bypasses their communication," said Beausoleil.

Whether it's a fire in a location with poor radio and cell reception or worst-case scenarios involving power outages or internet infrastructure failure, ham operators are depended upon by emergency responders in many parts of Maine due to their expertise and knowledge of establishing communications.

"We don't need repeaters or anything like that to actually communicate. We can communicate from radio to radio without going through some system," said Beausoleil.

Digital technology has evolved with ham radio. In recent years, computer specialists have engineered programs to work with radio operators.

"We can send emails back and forth to each other over the radio. We don't need the internet," said Beausoleil.

Karl Richards spent his career in I.T. and recently became interested in amateur radio.

"It's one of the first social media (platforms). So you get on that, you want to chat with your fellow radio operators about what's going on in the world, you can do that as well as emergency operations," said Richards.

He says emergency communications gives his hobby purpose. In Whitefield, ham operators have a mini-com trailer that gives them the ability to set up portable receptors on mountaintops or build an intricate network of radios in a catastrophic communications event.

"The radio is susceptible to the natural environment and there are some variables but it works most of the time. Where with the internet, it's there all the time. You pay a bill once a month, you get internet access, you get your cell phone. But if that infrastructure gets affected, everybody goes down at that moment so that's where radio comes in," said Richards.

"Several years ago we had a plane crash in West Gardiner and during that incident a tower got hit by lightning. They lost their cell phone communications and we called in our ham radio team out there from Kennebec and we set up a radio station in the fire station similar to this," said Beausoleil.

Amateur radio operators continue to be used in other real-world situations including search and rescues. While there are more licensed ham operators now than ever before, the hope is that advancements in technology will continue to attract younger radio enthusiasts to keep this tradition of public safety service alive and well in Maine.