The Alcorn County Emergency Management Agency, located at the Justice Center on South Harper Road, in Corinth, will take part in a statewide check from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Saturday to test the ham operators ability to provide emergency communications during a disaster.
“We provide emergency communications to several agencies, one of those being FEMA. Being part of FEMA, the Emergency Operating Center (EOC) at the Justice Center, we will be operating from there. Another agency we serve are the hospitals. We won’t be setting up at the hospital because access to the hospital is so restrictive, so we will go an operate from a mobile in the parking lot,” said Alcorn County Amateur Radio Emergency Services Treasurer/Member Bob Sharpe.
The reason for the test is to try out new digital compatibility technology with ham radios. Sharpe provided some background as to the need for the new technology to work along with ham radios.
He explained the last incident where emergency communications were really needed and provided by hams was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He said everyone found out that, when all communications goes down, ham radio is the only viable option they had.
However, they also discovered a drawback.
He cited the old communication game where a message is given to one person who then repeats it and so on down a line of people. Often, the final relayed message is no longer accurate.
“We found this issue to be true in 2005. For instance, Does Hattiesburg Hospital have 16 beds or 60 beds? Do they have 60 beds or do they need 60 beds?” said Sharpe.
Even with the issues, he said the word still managed to get out.
While the messages were still relayed, he said the Department of Health said that was not good enough.
“They went out and bought satellite radios and put them in all the hospitals — 82 of them — across the state, EMA locations and some 911 locations. All these agencies were interconnected. That was in 2005. All these systems have now degraded in the last few years,” he explained.
He said he has been called in to maintain those satellite radios and get them back operational — a job which called for some tough choices.
“Well, it’s like anything. If you have a vehicle, at some point you have to decide ... I could fix this vehicle but it’s going to cost more than getting a new vehicle and that’s where we’re at with the satellite system,” said Sharpe.
The experienced ham operator said the funding for the satellite systems had dwindled and the satellites had been pulled from the 911 and FEMA offices, until they were only left in hospitals. However, in the last year they have also been taken out of the hospitals, as well.
That put the burden of responsibility right back on hams.
Since 2005, technology has changed.
“We’ve found that word of mouth is not the best. There is a better way of doing things and it’s called digital communications,” said Sharpe.
He said it takes some new equipment to make the ham radios digitally compatible, but the result is a typed computer text message relayed through Remote Message Servers and the original message arrives intact. It is also possible to use the ham operators to send the messages to a computer, which means hard copies can be kept.
Sharpe approached Alcorn County Emergency Management Director Ricky Gibens and he authorized Sharpe to make the upgrades.
Sharpe said all of the equipment is not in yet, but he has enough together that they can now operate digitally. It’s not fully operational, but it’s enough to do some initial testing.
If all goes well, then Alcorn County will be one step closer to managing emergency communications with perfect accuracy.