ROCKLAND – In Maine, two families slept a little easier in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma thanks to ham radio operators in Knox County. The two welfare inquiries began their slow journeys to Florida via radiogram on Monday, Sept. 11. Both replies came back September 14. Slow by modern standards, yet lacking another long-distance option during the power and phone outages of the storm, the patience of Steve Hansen and Norm Smith, and the team effort of the traffic handlers along the route, still allowed for a sense of relief.
Both hams are active members of the Pen Bay Amateur Radio Club and the Knox County ARES/RACES-CERT team. They are also affiliated with Radio Relay International, an organization that supports and promotes ham radio message handling.
Smith, of Friendship, sent out a welfare inquiry regarding someone he knew. That inquiry took an unexpected geographic detour.
His message traveled first by voice, and was then relayed down the east coast by CW (Morse code) operators according to James Wades, who wrote about the incident in his monthly "QNI" newsletter for traffic (message) handlers.
The phone number of the addressee was inoperable. And without the option of driving to the street address, the ham in Miami sent a message to Radio Relay International requesting assistance.
Wades happened to pick up the request as he drove down I-55 in Western Illinois.
As he drove, Wades quickly crafted a plan. He pulled into a rest area, grabbed his I-Pad from his briefcase and began an internet search. Google Maps brought up the addressees' location. Images from the street view indicated that the residence was a senior living facility. The facility's name was quickly obtained, and eventually, the phone number for it's management company.
"They dispatched a security officer to the address, who reported back a short time later that the husband and wife were fine and unharmed," Wades wrote. "This resulted in a reply radiogram being originated to the inquiring party in Maine. The total turn-around time was measured in hours and a good service was provided."
For Hansen, a resident of Owls Head who has been involved in traffic handling for about three years, the route was a little different. A non-ham operator, Deborah, contacted a friend in Sabattus who was a ham. The friend, Corey, learned of Hansen's ability to act as a relay point since Hansen operates a digital station for radiograms into and out of the state.
Corey initiated the message on September 10, and sent it to Hansen on the 11th. The message was relayed shortly thereafter.
The ham [in Florida] who took the message for delivery was Jeffrey KR4ST, according to Hansen. He made contact with the party and created a message on September 13 that then went back to KB1TCE [Hansen].
"It was good to see someone take advantage of the service that hams provide," he said. "The traffic system operates continuously, moving thousands of message every month. In times of quiet, these are mostly personal notes to other hams and the like just to keep the networks running and operators trained. That keeps it ready for emergencies."
According to Hansen, the communication system for Puerto Rico's storm crisis is different.
"For something that's ongoing, Puerto Rico is very bad," Hansen said. "Hams have handled thousands of messages coming from there to relatives in the states. Inquiries (like the Florida one) are not being handled as it's too difficult to find the recipients at this time."
Jeff Miller WB8WKQ of Michigan has been one of the early team of hams to receive and deliver messages from Puerto Rico. He has now delivered hundreds of messages to family members.
According to Hansen, Miller has been reporting his activities on one of the ham radio internet forums and after several days of near continuous relaying had this to say: "I must admit, although I've been a traffic hound since the early 70s, this actually has been the most gratifying thing I've done. These families in the U.S. haven't heard a word from their PR families since Maria has hit. Most are crying and thanking me in between sobs."
Around 50 hams from the U.S. mainland are now organizing in the hurricane ravaged area to help with communication. They will be supporting the Red Cross.
Here at home, Hansen and other local hams are in the process of establishing a way to provide back-up communications at the neighborhood level using personal radio services, i.e. Family Radio Service and the General Mobile Radio Service, and then integrating them with ham services.
Anybody who is interested in this can email: KnoxHams@ballyhac.com.
More general information can be found at http://maine-ares.org/traffic.htm.
Information on Radio Relay International may be found at http://radio-relay.org/
Corey’s welfare inquiry
(Identifying information was X’d out of this article)
1 W HXE KU1U ARL 21 SABATTUS ME 2121Z SEP 10
ROBERT AND MILDRED XXXXXXXXX
XXX RICHMOND AVE S
LEHIGH ACRES FL 33936
ARL NINETEEN ADDRESSEE X MAY
BE AT LEHIGH SENIOR HIGH
SCHOOL SHELTER X FAMILY MEMBER
DEBORAH XXXXXX INQUIRING STATUS X
OP NOTE PLEASE REPLY VIA KB1TCE NTSME 04854
And then the reply:
83 R KR4ST 18 LEHIGH ACRES FL SEP 13
C/O STEVE HANSEN KB1TCE
WE ARE FINE IN OUR
OWN HOME WITH NO DAMAGE
X WENT TO A SHELTER
DURING THE HURRICANE
ROBERT AND MILDRED
72 W NY1B ARL 13 FRIENDSHIP ME SEP 11
LOUISE AND DICK XXXXXX
BRADENTON FL XXXXX
ARL TWELVE X I HOPE
ALL FLOATED WELL X GOOD
LUCK X 73
YOUR BROTHER NY1B
“ARL 12 is in a list of 69 programed messages that all traffic handlers have to save space and transmission time over the airways,” Norm said. “ ARL 12 says: ‘Anxious to hear from you. No word in some time. Please contact me as soon as possible.’”
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org