Amateur Radio Provides Lifeline During Disaster

By Nick Samaniego, Media & Government Affairs, American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles, on assignment in Oregon 

Beaverton, Ore. – Hard hitting disasters like the recent Northwest storms can knock communications for a loop. In Oregon, thousands of homes and businesses were left “power-less” – without utilities, telephones or any lines of communication to outside help.  Luckily, local residents in storm ravaged areas could depend on a handful of specially trained volunteers dedicated to an old-fashioned method of information sharing – ham radio. Anticipating that telephone lines, cell towers and internet connections in rural communities could be severely impaired, the Red Cross – in collaboration with CERT and other partners – pre-positioned ham radio operators and relied on them to deal with the multitude of storm-related crises. Amateur radio equipment can be used in disaster areas even when power is out and phone lines, relays and other communications systems are down because these radios run on their own battery or generator power. 

On the evening of Sunday, Dec. 2, alarming weather reports prompted Red Cross volunteer Scott Oerding to pack up his portable ham radio and overnight gear, and head to Tillamook to wait out the storm. A Portland resident of nearly 30 years and a seasoned volunteer with the Oregon Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross, Scott met up with his crew of eight volunteer ham radio operators to determine where along the storm path they should locate operations in hopes of keeping the emergency dialogue going.   Though labeled an “amateur,” Scott would end up relaying dozens of routine emergency calls to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for Tillamook County like a real pro. Two cold, muddy, rain-soaked days into the operation, Scott’s skills were put to the test.

Taking advantage of a break in the clouds, Scott headed to the shelter’s parking lot for a breath of fresh air and a brief moment of peace. As he walked toward his vehicle, a mud-spattered pick-up tore into the driveway. “I stood watching, listening as the driver – a frantic woman in her fifties – stumbled out and began rambling about someone hurt and in need of help,” Scott explained. “She looked panicked and exhausted.” The woman went on to tell Scott about her injured neighbor. “My first instinct was to calm her down a bit and attempt to get as many details as possible before determining how to proceed,” he continued. By Scott’s account, the woman grew nervous and frustrated as she struggled to articulate just what had happened and who needed the medical help. He managed to figure out that an elderly man – the husband of the woman’s close acquaintance – had suffered a bad fall and required immediate medical attention. His condition was deteriorating rapidly. Scott reached for his hand-held radio, speaking into the mouthpiece with clear and concise bursts: “Emergency traffic for 9-1-1.” After multiple relay attempts and no response from the EOC, another ham operator answered the distress call. “I have a functional landline and can handle your traffic,” said the voice on the other end. Scott then delivered the essential information intended for the paramedics, easing the woman’s fears as she heard that professional medical help was on the way.   Less than fifteen minutes passed before the ambulance raced past the shelter en route to the home of the injured man.

Once on the scene, the EMTs trudged through mud and debris in the flooded home to stabilize the elderly gentleman before transporting him to a nearby medical facility. Over the airwaves, word reached Scott that the man had shattered his hip and did indeed require the immediate medical attention Scott was able to summon. “I let out a big sigh of relief knowing that we were able to get him the help he needed,” said Scott.  “Without these ham radios, I don’t know how else this man would have been saved.”

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