Whether it's a powerful earthquake, a hurricane or tsunami that collapse buildings and highways or even heavy snowfall that delays delivery of food to store shelves, few parts of the world are immune from the effects of an emergency or disaster. In 2005, public health professor Sarah Bass of Temple University noted researchers found "people universally rely on television and radio for information during an emergency. But surprisingly, they say, half of respondents would go to their clergy for information, highlighting the important role that non-traditional communicators play in emergency response."
Obtaining and sharing information for many once focused on traditional media broadcasters such as radio and television but today communications most likely center around the Internet or portable text-messaging devices. Infrastructure disruptions, often caused by power outages, can leave communities temporarily isolated from the "outside" world and residents seeking information from non-traditional sources.
The Church's website providentliving.org reinforces prophetic counsel by encouraging members to "prepare a simple emergency plan." Among the items the site lists for consideration are a three-month supply of food, drinking water, financial reserves, medication and first aid supplies, clothing, important documents and ways to communicate with family following a disaster. Stakes and wards are also reminded that "during an emergency, normal means of communication may become inoperable. Communication needs should be addressed in ward and stake emergency plans."
As found in the Church's guidelines for emergency communications, leaders should consider how to communicate the status of missionaries, members, buildings and other necessary information to area leaders. One option is for priesthood leaders to call communications specialists who "often own radio equipment and possess valuable experience." One such resource can be members who are licensed amateur radio operators and maintain home stations capable of operating during emergency situations.
In the past months areas of the United States have experienced unexpected weather, such as in Georgia where snowfall resulted in temporary impact to area residents. Amateur radio operators, often referred to as "hams," in five Atlanta area stakes (Atlanta, Cartersville, Marietta East, Powder Springs and Sugar Hill) recently participated in a communications exercise to see how well they could share information in the event of an emergency.
According to Watson Nichols, president of the Marietta Georgia East Stake, "the issue of emergency preparedness can involve many different aspects for individuals or a community at large and emergency communications need to be a vital part of any response plan."
President Nichols explained that "cell phone towers can be destroyed in tornados or the network can be overloaded. The remaining call carrying capacity of cell and landline systems can easily be absorbed by the needs of civil authorities — if those modes of communications are even functional. The ability to have a ham radio network available to the stake and ward priesthood leaders will allow for response efforts to be directed where needed."
Because of the potential for any number of emergency scenarios in Georgia, a number of amateur radio groups in Atlanta conducted a communications exercise earlier this year. As plans developed for the event, members from the five Atlanta-area stakes were invited to participate. One of the goals for the Church participation was not only to communicate with other agencies but also to connect the stakes with the Bishops' Central Storehouse in Tucker, Ga.
Ham operators from the stakes joined with other hams from the Atlanta area and established "networks" of stations designed to share information. Participants included a 9-year-old licensed operator, Dawn Redd, whose ham callsign is KB3UDD. She was visiting from Pennsylvania and participated along with her grandmother, Susan Redd (K4SUZ), a member of the Atlanta Georgia Stake. In addition to Church member stations, several area amateur radio clubs participated along with the Cherokee County Amateur Radio Emergency Services, a local element of the Amateur Radio Relay League, a non-profit nationwide ham radio organization.
Jim Alderdice (N1ABM), a member of the Marietta Georgia East Stake, estimated that some 12,500 Church members could potentially be served by ham radio operators in the five stakes. Following the exercise, Brother Alderdice reported that coverage extended to 15 counties and that 113 radio contacts were made.
Sugar Hill Georgia Stake President Benjamin W. Wood said "all emergencies are local. A ward, during a severe emergency, will likely need help with effective and reliable communication. Emergency communication is one area of preparation that a single ward cannot do on its own."
During the exercise, stations in homes were used as well as stations set up by ham operators in Church buildings. In the Powder Springs Georgia Stake, the high council room became a temporary "command center" as radio messages were sent to other stakes and to the Bishops' Central Storehouse.
Some of the observations following the event included the need to help newly licensed or less-experienced Church operators use various types of radio equipment and to continue training on how to set up stations and transmit messages. Several ward and stake leaders observed that emergency plans needed to be updated or even prepared to help encourage member preparedness. Several of the hams offered to help host or teach as workshops were proposed both for Church and community groups. Brother Alderdice noted that these volunteer radio operators also expressed the need to prepare alternate sources of power in case of outages lasting beyond "battery capacity."
Several of the stakes and wards used amateur radio as a main point of contact and then used other radio systems such as small Family Radio System devices to connect families to the network. These small radios require no license to operate and allow families to relay information, for example, to a nearby ham station. Having an amateur radio license allows operators to use a wide variety of frequencies and higher-powered radios able to cover many miles, including the capability of contacting operators in nearby counties, states or even in other countries.
Most of the ham radio frequencies do not rely on intermediate relay stations, allowing operators to talk direct to each other. By not having a commercially powered relay station, Brother Alderdice explained, ham radio stations are ideally situated where commercial power is unavailable during an emergency. He said many stations are powered by batteries or from small generators and can operate for several days until commercial power is restored.
As mentioned in Professor Bass' research, religious leaders are often contacted for guidance during emergencies. President Wood said "Stakes ... are positioned to provide wards with a backup plan, potentially providing a vital service for the welfare of members."
Following the radio event, President Nichols said, "This is one of those areas where you hope that it is never needed. But I am pleased to know that our stake has individuals that are knowledgeable in the use of ham radio and that we can serve our members but also be a resource of communications to the civilian authorities in an emergency."