When disaster strikes, sometimes it comes down to old-school radio technology to save the day.

The planners of the state-of-the-art Jackson County emergency dispatch center off Biddle Road recognized this and made space where volunteer amateur radio operators could provide the last line of defense in case of catastrophic earthquake or tsunami.

That's not to say that ham radio operators have been left behind by digital technology, says Jackson County Amateur Radio Emergency Service coordinator Don Montgomery.

"We have voice and digital capabilities now," he said. "This is more advanced than what most people have heard."

Amateur radio has progressed beyond hobbyists who want to chat with other civilian radio enthusiasts, Montgomery said.

"We can do voice and digital communication now," he said. "In case of a major disaster, we can be the ones who put emergency services in contact with each other until they get their systems back up."

The amateur radio operators have proven their value to the Rogue Valley's emergency communications twice this year alone.

The crew was called into action in August when the Tin Pan Peak fire raged through 425 acres of wildland east of Rogue River.

The intense smoke and steep terrain cut off communication briefly between fire crews, forcing the amateur radio team to trudge up nearby mountains to place repeater radio boxes that would temporarily beam radio transmissions between crews as the fire progressed.

"For a while we served as the connector for the fire crews," Montgomery said. "We supported them until they were able to communicate with each other."

The next amateur radio call-out came in November, when 9-1-1 service was temporarily knocked out in the Gold Hill area.

Amateur radio operators in the dispatch center worked to take land-line calls that they forwarded to the proper police departments, Montgomery said.

"We put a portable repeater on local fire stations that transmitted frequencies until they got the 9-1-1 service going again," Montgomery said.

The amateur station is funded by state grants that pay for computers and set-up costs.

However, the grants are not enough to pay for upkeep and other costs associated with operating a radio center.

"We are looking for donations from the business community," Montgomery said.

The local amateur radio community has recruited people such as Dan Bell, who was attracted to the service because he wants to protect his family and community.

"I got into this because I care about helping people," Bell said. "This is not just a hobby for me."

The amateur radio room is a stark contrast to the rest of the dispatch center, which features expensive computers and highly trained professional dispatch operators.

"We have our own little space here, but we think it provides a valuable service," Montgomery said.

Emergency services officials agreed and added amateur radio antennas to the county major 9-1-1 service tower.


Text: Chris Conrad

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