On February 24, the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Ga. issued severe weather and tornado watches to 334 counties across the southeast, including Bibb. Due to the severity of the storm system, the National Weather Service utilized the Georgia SKYWARN Linked Repeater System, a radio network on which amateur radio operators can report hail, tornadoes, lightning and damaging wind to the National Weather Service. The National Weather Service uses information gathered from these trained spotters to supplement in-house meteorology equipment and to refine public weather broadcasts.
A Boy Scout Troop from was backpacking on Pine Mountain Trail, west of Macon, the day of the severe weather. One of the scouts was able to use his hand-held radio transceiver to contact the National Weather Service using the Georgia SKYWARN Linked Repeater System. The SKYWARN net control operator, in conjunction with the meteorologists from the National Weather Service, informed the troop of the incoming storm system’s potential to produce high speed winds, hail and frequent lightning strikes. Other amateur radio operators listening to the situation joined in, guiding the troop to the nearest evacuation point. The scouts’ radio stopped working due to the heavy rain. Concerned by the silence, radio operators contacted the park rangers who were able to meet the Boy Scouts at the coordinated evacuation point.
Cliff Brown, a Physical Plant employee at Mercer University and amateur radio operator was monitoring the rescue operation from campus. Brown manages a portion of the Georgia SKYWARN Linked Repeater System known as the Cherry Blossom Intertie which extends 300 miles from Brunswick to Atlanta running through Macon. The Intertie uses eight repeaters whose signals overlap. If one repeater goes down due to severe weather or power outage, coverage is preserved and messages can still get through.
“The Cherry Blossom Intertie is a system that is built around the idea of ‘what if the internet goes kapooey?’” said Brown. Amateur radio transceivers have the ability to transmit not only voice, but data as well. As long as one radio in the network has internet access, all radios linked to the Intertie could use the same internet access point, potentially from hundreds of miles away. 3G and 4G Cellular towers only have a range of a few miles and signal could easily be disrupted during an extended power outage.
Since the widespread use of digital radio systems, emergency services such as police and fire departments are reliant on proprietary software and hardware. This means that while digital radio systems have streamlined the emergency dispatching process, they have lost the ability to communicate with emergency departments from other cities who use another company’s radio system. Jones County police cannot talk directly to Macon Police over radio, hindering rescue operations in a combined response to a natural disaster. Also, because these systems are purchased rather than built, they have a designed operating life of roughly10 years and are difficult to fix due to the lack of interchangeable parts.
As reported in the Mercer’s Cluster, the Macon’s 911 system went down last October due to a hardware failure. Civilians were able to call 911, but the dispatchers had no way of contacting officers on duty. Cliff Brown says that in such a situation it would be fairly easy to implement a temporary ham radio net over Macon allowing officers to communicate in real time with the aid of volunteer amateur radio operators. “We believe that the Cherry Blossom Intertie serves as a complement and a backup to existing communications systems,” said Brown.
Mark Wynn, Deputy Director of the Emergency Management Agency in Macon, said that in a situation where communications would go down due to a natural disaster, Macon would rely on local amateur radio clubs. If the problem was beyond the capabilities of the local clubs, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service would be implemented. Members of the organization are encouraged to certify themselves with both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Community Emergency Response Team. “We never tell a served agency how to do their job. Rather, we tell them how Amateur Radio can help them perform their mission,” said Lynn Bianco. Bianco is the Assistant Section Emergency Coordinator for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) in Georgia.
Bianco emphasizes that the greatest advantage amateur radio has over other systems is the amount of radio spectrum available to amateur radio operators. This means that while emergency systems are locked into specific frequencies by design, and therefore cannot talk to each other, amateur radio can switch between the frequencies freely. “One of our local contingencies is to send ARES communicators to each fire station in the event normal 911 communications goes down,” said Bianco.
Macon has not had a damaging tornado touch down since May 11, 2008. More recently, on April 5, 2011, Macon was threatened by severe weather, with the potential to spawn a tornado. No tornadoes touched down, but an estimated 12,000 people in Macon were without power after the storm passed.
In an emergency situation, such as a school lockdown or severe weather emergency, residential assistants are responsible for making sure all students are present and accounted for. Mercer Police has a tornado response plan available on their website, posting the best locations for taking shelter in nearly every building on campus. Mercer’s Police Department also sends out severe weather alerts to the student body via text message and student email.