Modern life is more dependent upon communication than ever before. We expect our computers and cell phones to keep us all connected, all the time, wherever we are. But what happens when a natural disaster throws us all back to a time before telephones and the Internet? How will governments, hospitals, and other emergency managers communicate with each other and with the public, when getting the right information out is most important?
That's where the Prince George's County Amateur Radio Emergency Service stands ready.
ARES installs amateur radio equipment in the region's hospitals, health departments and extended care facilities, and staffs them with local amateur radio operators who volunteer to help in the case of an emergency that damages regular lines of communication that depend on a sound infrastructure.
"They hate to admit that all these high-tech, high-cost systems can break down," said Prince George's County Emergency Coordinator Jim Montgomery of Brandywine. "When the lights go off, we won't miss a beat."
When an area's relief efforts are centered elsewhere, such as at an emergency shelter, Red Cross outpost, or other hub, ARES volunteers can set up reliable emergency communications there, too.
"We do not burden the infrastructure; we bring everything," said Montgomery.. "Eighty-five-lb. batteries, masts, antennas, computers, radios, headphones. We don't ask for anything except maybe a table and chair."
There are approximately 800 amateur radio operators in Prince George's County. Of those, fifty are registered to volunteer with ARES, should the need arise. Jim Montgomery and his wife, Wanda, who heads the county's Emergency Preparedness Coalition (until recently known as the Prince George's County Health Care Commission), have volunteered with ARES since 2007, when a chance meeting at the annual Ham Fest held at Timonium Fairgrounds introduced them to the organization. At the time, ARES had unused and untested amateur radio equipment installed in Southern Maryland Hospital, and needed someone to get it up to useable condition.
Later that year, with the success of the new system at Southern Maryland Hospital, American Radio Relay League Maryland-D.C. Vice Manager Tom Abernathy and Section Manager Jim Cross tapped the Montgomerys to establish relationships with Laurel Regional Hospital, Bowie Health Center, Doctors Hospital, Fort Washington Medical Center, and Prince George's Community Hospital in Cheverly, Md.
"All summer long we went on rooftops, installed antennas, cables, tested out the equipment," said Jim Montgomery.
By Feb. 2009, all the county's hospitals and the Prince George's County Health Department were on the air at the same time. Wanda Montgomery manages the hospital side of the amateur radio equation, while Jim Montgomery recruits and trains ARES volunteers once they are already certified ham radio operators.
ARES volunteers work with local health care providers to determine what their needs might be, in the case of a large-scale emergency. It's all a matter of determining how government and private organizations react to a crisis individually and in concert with each other. ARES folds into each hospital's semi-annual emergency exercises. The relationships between ARES volunteers and local facilities are growing stronger, with time.
"For many years we sat through the drills, 'in the corner in the dark and stay out of everybody's way,'" said Jim Montgomery. "They didn't know how to use us. It took a long time before we really had a seat at the table, but that's all progressed and we are now very much a member of the group and they look to us to provide back-up communications in the drills they have."
ARES has provided a written plan for what to do when telephone and Internet service is down. They can provide voice communication via repeaters on behalf of a hospital or staff member, based on priority, and send emails via radio frequencies not connected to the Internet.
During Hurricane Irene in 2011, communications were not interrupted to the point that ARES volunteers were needed. Since Prince George's County is generally in a mild climate zone, the relative lack of those emergencies can make our community what Wanda Montgomery calls "disaster complacent."
"People say we don't get earthquakes, tornadoes or hurricanes here, but last year we had them all in one week," Jim Montgomery said. And during the recent derecho, the federal Department of Health and Human Services called upon ARES volunteers to send Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public service announcements to West Virginia counties, to be ready for distribution once county health departments were back online.
But there are other events that attract ARES volunteers that happen here and nowhere else.
"During the Obama inauguration, we got a call, saying, 'I know we won't need you, don't say we will, but I want my boys on standby,'" remembered Jim Montgomery. "So, we reserved three operators on standby during the whole event, and brought in ham radio operators from other counties across the state."
Part of their responsibility that day was to keep the Maryland Emergency Management Administration informed, and boost communications for a Red Cross-operated shuttle system running out of the University of Maryland's Richie Coliseum.
"We did email, and cell phones only worked outside the building. There's no Internet at Richie Coliseumit's a gymnasium," explained Jim Montgomery.
On Sept. 15, ARES will participate in the annual Get Ready Prince George's Day exercise hosted at Glenarden Community Center as part of the county's National Emergency Preparedness Month activities. The exercise will rest upon a simulated storm. ARES will bring in amateur radio operators from Charles, Calvert, Montgomery and possibly St. Mary's Counties to help handle communications needs between fire and rescue organizations, the health department, local hospitals, public transportation and other organizations put to the test during catastrophic events.
"Health departments, tied in with the EMS and ambulances, need to be in communication with the hospitals throughout an emergency, so they can find out what the bed availability is for each facility," said Wanda Montgomery. "That's how they know where to take patients."
ARES will also participate in October's annual Capital Shield statewide exercise, as well as a pandemic flu exercise held each spring.
For information on ARES in Prince George's County, contact Jesse Alexander at wb2ifsarrl.net.