You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

HAMS Keep Red Cross Connected During Disaster

When disasters strike, HAMS often come to the rescue.

During Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) provided open lines of communication for the American Red Cross, helping get important supplies to people in need.

As Irene neared landfall in late August, both the ARES and the New York City/Long Island American Radio Relay League (ARRL) supported the Red Cross by staffing the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and supporting shelters in Queens, Nassau County and Suffolk County. While not all shelters required onsite Amateur Radio Operators—a.k.a. HAMS—volunteers were on standby to move their equipment at a moment’s notice.

Roughly a week later, when remnants of Tropical Storm Lee hit Central New York, HAM communications again played an important role as the Red Cross spread across the area, setting up 17 shelters in the first 24 hours. One shelter that relied upon HAM radio transmissions to communicate with the Binghamton disaster operations headquarters was filled with residents with special medical needs in Sidney, N.Y.

Red Cross volunteer Ed Fedor gets a communication sent by Amateur Radio Emergency Services volunteer Brian Adee at the Disaster Operations Center in Hillcrest, New York. Photo: Chuck Haupt/American Red Cross

According to Red Cross Shelter Manager Carol Remondo, this was the first disaster that the local Red Cross had utilized amateur radio after participating in an initial training drill last year.

“We were so thankful that he was deployed to our shelter,” said Remondo, referring to HAM operator Jim Lebaron of Sidney. Typically, the shelter would contact the Emergency Operations Center and request an operator. However, this time the Delaware County EOC proactively sent Lebaron to help the small rural shelter.

With operators having their own personal equipment ready to go, Mike Lisenco, Section Manager of the ARRL, states that they are able to operate using non-commercial power. Hurricane Irene knocked out power for thousands of people in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, and Tropical Storm Lee caused similar outages throughout the South Central region. According to Lisenco, “Their effort lasted for days after the storm passed.”

“Cell phone service was sporadic early on. So we established contact with the Red Cross headquarters in Binghamton,” said Lebaron. “One of our jobs was to radio to HQ and help get items, like cleanup kits for flood victims. I also called in to transmit food requests, and exchanged current numbers of clients for planning.”

According to Richard Kelly, president of Walton Fire Department and the ARRL leader responsible for deploying teams, the day after Irene made landfall a team was sent by the emergency management director to hard-hit Margaretville. “Six of us shared in helping out with either shelter communications or providing assistance to the fire departments that didn’t have communications with each other.” Another five operators were sent to Schoharie County.

When regular communication systems came back online, the teams demobilized and went back home. Then Tropical Storm Lee blew in and caused havoc across the already saturated state. Both Lisenco and Kelly redeployed their volunteer teams to their assigned locations.

“You see, we HAMS have a great advantage,” said Kelly. “Fire departments and the Red Cross may only have one or two frequencies on their radios. We have access to thousands and thousands. If you can’t talk to each other on the one frequency because of terrain, weather or whatever, we can reach into our pockets and maintain efficient direct communication channels.”