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What (Exactly) Is An Amateur (Ham) Radio Operator And What Do They Do?

 Columbia County’s Emergency Coordinator Richard Heston Talks About 9-11 And Hurricane Floyd

SVT Video by Tami Stevenson

The Suwannee Valley Times had the privilege of visiting Richard Heston at the Columbia County Communications Center in Lake City. It is the Emergency Operations Center or EOC for the county.

“You’re lucky to get in here,” he said, “not very many people are allowed in.” The building certainly is under ‘lock and key’ as I had to go through three people before I could get to Richard and I had an appointment.

 Richard is the Emergency Coordinator for Columbia County. He was appointed to that position in 1999 and has been there through every major hurricane since 1995. Heston also has operated a ham radio since the ‘80’s. “We carry our external communications from the regular Emergency Operations Center (EOC) through amateur radio in our houses and vehicles. We connect with the Caribbean and all the storm reports go directly back to the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.” Said Heston.

So how does amateur or ham radio operate for our area during a disaster?

Through HF, or high frequency, they can communicate over longer distances. They have the capability of connecting anywhere in the United States, Canada and all of the Caribbean Islands, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and at different times in the day they go to different frequencies, usually depending on where the sun is. Richard said, “These are the abilities we have that go beyond what the local communications systems have the capability to do.”

He also said this is sort of a hub for the Suwannee Valley Area. They have what they call the Suwannee Valley Area Sky Warn Net, which is Amateur Radio Emergency Service connected to Sky Warn and is a part of the National Weather Services program.

They have repeaters in the surrounding counties. A repeater, Richard explained, could be related to a cell phone tower that will pick up your signal, go online, connect to another radio and then you can talk back. So they have their own independent system.

Often the board of County Commissioners cannot get through to the EOC in an emergency or storm situation, so they may go to a Red Cross shelter and use one of the amateur radio operators who work directly with the Red Cross. They handle the communications for the shelters. “When they need supplies, medical attention or something of that nature, we’re here for that,” Richard said.

He continued, “To give you an idea how this works, when 9 -11 occurred, all the communications towers were on the Twin Towers, or the antennas were. So when the buildings collapsed the antennas went with them but amateur radio had a repeater on the Empire State Building. So we were able to assign operators.” Within a half hour they had operators that already volunteered to handle communications for fire and rescue because, according to Richard, all they had locally were handy-talkies.

Another example is when a hurricane is approaching, if you’re listening, you’ll hear operators check in when the winds start picking up to about 35 mph in their area. “That way we can see right where the edge of the winds are picking up as the storm comes across the state and it’s in real time which really helps.”

When we had hurricane Floyd (September 14 to 18, 1999), Richard said there were about two million people evacuated from Jacksonville and all the gas stations were out of gas. There was no place to sleep; the parking lots were filled up here because this is really the main artery for getting in and out of Florida. I-95 and I-10 going West and I-75 going North, so this becomes a hub.

FEMA puts their supplies in ahead of a storm so they are on stand by. Then they can go into the area wherever the hurricane strikes and Richard and others like him work with FEMA and the Red Cross directly in these situations.

On Monday, Feb. 21st at 7 pm they will have a gentlemen there who is responsible for the largest digital network in the world, SEDAN (Southeastern Digital Amateur Network). He will give a demonstration of how it works. They have independent radios they can connect with the hospitals in Lake City and Live Oak that can go around the system when the systems are overloaded and this will be a special demonstration where everyone is invited.

Ham radio is something you can do for your community and it is extremely important. They offer training and help for those who are interested in becoming an amateur radio operator. Richard is the Vice President of the Columbia Amateur Radio Society. They have meetings the third Monday of every month. “Those that are interested in amateur radio, have an opportunity to be of a tremendous service to the community.” Heston said.

Why do they call it amateur radio? (Because it is anything but amateur) “It’s called amateur because we cannot be paid unless we’ve been out and assigned under a specific large area disaster such as a hurricane,” Said Heston. “This whole thing depends on volunteers. We have a jump team where a certain number of us have a 3 day supply of everything we need to go - water, food, supplies and radios - so we can be assigned in a moments notice. We can have someone at a special site usually within 30 minutes.”

Even though they call it amateur radio, according to Richard, many of the operators have doctorate degrees; Richard has a commercial radio license for commercial communications in television and radio. He also has a Ham Radio operator’s license and then he’s what they call a VE. That is a volunteer examiner for FCC testing. He administers the test the 4th Monday in every odd month for people who want to get their amateur radio license. He also teaches electronics and pastors a church, Lake City Baptist Temple located on Hwy 47 (exit 423) off I-75. According to Richard, he and his wife built the church from the ground up some 45 years ago, but that is another story!

Richard is a very busy man with no intentions of slowing down. His energy is contagious and it was an honor to meet and interview this great example of what America is all about, helping each other.