In times of emergencies, seconds and minutes matter. It’s especially true in an area where vast forests, high ridges and low-lying areas can cripple normal radio and cell phone reception. And in turn, delaying or losing contact can be the difference between life and death.
That’s about to change at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, thanks to a United States Army MARS radio repeater which will be permanently installed within two to three months. The repeater will be placed on top of the park’s water tower, which is located near the Dupont Lodge.
Being atop one of the park’s highest places will give an outstanding signal, and will link the region to state Emergency Management headquarters in Frankfort. In addition, the repeater will connect with trained amateur radio, or “ham radio” operators in the region, which can be used not only for severe weather spotting, but to alert the park on local, state and national emergencies. An added bonus will be the repeater’s use in getting out emergency information on incidents affecting the park.
Pam Gibson of the park’s staff said Monday afternoon the new MARS repeater station — which stands for “Military Affiliate Radio System” — would be a quantum leap forward from other communications means.
“They tested the signal on the water tower the other day. They had some equipment with them to see if the other ham operators could pick up the signal from the water tower, and those doing the testing said the signal could go as far south as Knoxville. One great thing about the repeater is that if there’s a disaster and the power goes out, it will work,” said Gibson.
The Emergency Coordinator for District 11 of the state Amateur Radio Emergency Service, Randall Gilreath, confirmed the testing.
“We did an RF (Radio Frequency) test and the repeater will be linked with the site in Berea and Danville, and with the state emergency operations center in Frankfort. We will need to get a frequency coordinated from MARS first, then tune that frequency, then it will probably be installed permanently by this summer. But we know now that if there’s an emergency in the park before that time, we have the capability to have something temporarily up within a day,” Gilreath said.
The District 11 ARES area covers eight counties in Southeastern and South Central Kentucky — Whitley, Knox, Laurel, McCreary, Bell, Clay, Jackson and Rockcastle.
Gilreath said those helping with the project are volunteers, and are not getting compensated by any of the agencies the repeater station will serve. When the repeater is up and running permanently, he added the transmitter will serve a two-fold purpose.
“The intention with MARS is to saturate the entire state of Kentucky with VHF (Very High Frequency) repeater coverage. This will serve several agencies, beginning with the U. S. Army, FEMA and Kentucky Emergency Management, then local Emergency Management. In turn, this will serve ARES, which is a more localized emergency communications organization that was developed by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which is made up of amateur, or ham radio members. It’s written into both national and state emergency operations plans, as was used in the recent tornado outbreak in Kentucky. We work alongside the National Weather Service, and their office in Jackson, to get storm reports from Skywarn-trained ham radio operators in the region. In fact, the Weather Service office in Jackson has a ham radio station for that purpose. There are several amateur repeaters in the London-Corbin area that not only has Weather Alert Radio, but has active Weather Nets during severe weather events,” said Gilreath, who is also with the Army MARS unit.
What Gibson also likes is the fact the repeater can be used not just for severe weather, but for other incidents in the park area.
“We’re into tornado season now, but this will benefit us in the wintertime. When the snow is heavy, and the roads are blocked not just with snow and ice, but downed trees and possible power lines, it’s what we need. We’re also into the wildfire and brushfire season. Should there be an earthquake, this will help. Or if there’s a plane crash, a traffic accident, power outages, any kind of local, state or national emergency, even Amber Alerts, this will be a very valuable tool in getting emergency help into and out of the park area,” she noted.
Gibson saw how well a network of ham radio operators worked when they helped during the United States Adventure Race Association’s National Championships, which were held at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park last October.
“Cell phones don’t work too well up here at the park, but the ham operators were with the ‘Adventurers’ racers at all times last fall. If they needed to get water or medical help to the racers, or send an ambulance, the ham operators could get it out to them quick. And they also helped out finding lost hikers during the event. When they came here, they brought their own generator, and because of what they do, we got together and were able to do an up-to-the-minute blog on everything in the race. I was amazed with what a class act these people are,” said Gibson.
From a park standpoint, Gibson said the repeater atop the water tower will hardly be noticed by visitors. “When it goes up permanently, it’ll be totally unobtrusive. You won’t see any blinking red lights or strobe lights when it’s installed. It doesn’t interfere with the scenery, and the tourists, and with me.”
But what will stand out is getting information that needs to be known into and out of the park, the quicker response time, and the capability of staying on when the only power available is from batteries, or from solar-powered and “hand crank” emergency radios.
Gibson agreed the repeater station couldn’t come at a better time. “With this station and the help from the ham operators, you can get a hold of search and rescue teams and EMS crews into the park faster that we can. They’re in constant contact with the scanners in all the counties they cover. They’re better than the cell phones, because they relay information. They’re also a part of disaster relief plans for the area counties, and they can go statewide. The ham operators are like a chain, and with the repeater going up, everything to help us, to help them, and to help others, falls into place.”
Source: www.thetimestribune.com - Jeff Noble