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Ham radio operators to be tested Friday

By Staff | Sep 30, 2015

A major disaster is expected right before this upcoming weekend. Every resident and visitor on Estero Island and surrounding barrier islands in the area should be on high alert.

That message will be the heartbeat for dozens of amateur (ham) radio operators this Friday afternoon when an imaginary hurricane comes ashore on Fort Myers Beach. This simulated disaster will bring out dozens of volunteers with radio technology skills and operating principles from Lee, Charlotte, Hendry, and Collier counties on Friday and Saturday.

The goal for these seasoned commercial radio folks is to practice coordinated emergency radio response among each county’s hospitals, emergency shelters and Red Cross facilities, as well as Emergency Operations Center amateur radio rooms. Both equipment and the operators will be tested for functional readiness. Operators will utilize their training to provide shortwave radio communications between the remote facilities, regional networks and the EOC amateur radio rooms of each county.

Beach Chamber President Bud Nocera is one member of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, a public service organization sponsored by the nationwide American Radio Relay League. He is being deployed on Saturday, but will not know where he is going until later this week.

“They really try to do it as a disaster drill. The scenario is that there will be this fake Category 2 hurricane that’s going to hit Fort Myers Beach on Friday, and they will deploy radio operators on Friday and Saturday,” he said. “We are really the last line in communications. When all else fails, amateur radio operators will step in to help.”

Ham radio operators have “go-boxes” that can operate off of batteries and photovoltaic cells, in case power is down. Nocera stated that while Lee County Emergency Management probably has the best 1-800 radio system money can buy, the service of amateur radio operators may still be required.

“Time and again around the country it has been proven that in real life disasters any radio system can go down and ham radio operators have to step up. They have the equipment, radio knowledge and operational knowledge to step in and provide assistance to emergency operations,” Nocera said. “The whole point is for us to be on standby and provide them with assistance if they need it.”

“Amateur radio has consistently been the most reliable means of communications in emergencies when other systems failed or were overloaded,” added Steve Smith, ARES Emergency Coordinator in Lee County. “We enjoy a great working relationship with Lee County Emergency Management, fire and law enforcement agencies, and stand ready to support them as needed, 24/7.”

The simulated disaster drill is in addition to required weekly radio communication practice and monthly training for ARES volunteers.

During the Boston Marathon bombings, ham radio operators were utilized when all cell phone service in the Boston area became overloaded. They can be needed for most other major disasters, such as hurricanes, as well.

Nocera pointed out the amateur radio operators volunteer their skills and equipment at no cost to taxpayers. They are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to provide emergency communications as needed to support public service agencies in times of disaster.

“You have to be tested on radio theory and have a knowledge of radio operations as well,” he said.

The local ARES team is 125 members strong, but only a few dozen people are expected to be deployed this weekend. Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District Fire Prevention Specialist Bill Genevrino is a ham radio operator and training officer for the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) in the southeastern states and the Caribbean.

Nocera stated the process begins with e-mail informational bulletins sent to ARES team members during the week. He began ham radio operations as a 14-year-old child and resumed it later in life, like many in the trade, after high school, college, marriage and a family life. Many operators are retirees.

“There were a lot of us that were novice operators back in the 1960s,” he said. “As your kids leave the nest, you get back into it. But, there are a lot in the club that have been operating continuously for 40 to 50 years.”