"Keep up the good work." Essentially, that was Gov. Ted Kulongoski's message when the state provided the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) organization with a special allocation of $250,000 earlier this year.
According to Don Montgomery, coordinator of the Jackson County chapter of ARES, the organization is using the money to purchase digital communication equipment for ARES chapters in each Oregon county.
"ARES operators in coastal communities really saved the day in providing backup communications during the winter storms last December," says Montgomery. "The governor realized this and directed the Legislature to allocate the money."
Those storms, some of the worst in decades, knocked out both landline and cellular phone service for several days. One town — the tiny community of Vernonia — was entirely cut off from the rest of Oregon by flooding and landslides. Overall, a state of emergency existed in four Oregon counties. Radio amateurs directed rescue crews to residents stranded in these counties, while informing hospitals that patients were on the way.
Their role would be much the same should a disaster occur in Jackson County.
In an emergency, ARES members would tune their radios to a designated frequency and listen for deployment instructions, Montgomery says. "Overall, we have established some 20 ARES stations throughout the county," he adds. "Plus, Mercy Flights recently donated a retired ambulance, which is in the process of being converted into an emergency communication vehicle with a full complement of radio equipment."
If needed, radio operators would rush to these stations — located in all hospitals, as well as in some fire stations and government buildings — and set up support service for fire, medical and rescue personnel.
With only about 20 ARES members to man these stations, Montgomery is constantly seeking new recruits. Because Jackson County has been lucky in avoiding the kinds of disasters that disable regular communications, he finds it hard to convince some people that ARES is necessary.
Indeed, Montgomery himself has never dealt with an emergency within Jackson County, though he has supported crews fighting wildfires in Josephine County.
Still, wildfires and earthquakes are real concerns in our county, he insists, adding that ARES has trained with the Bureau of Reclamation on what to do if a dam breaches.
A radio operating license and a clean criminal background are required for ARES membership. Another essential, says Montgomery, is "a commitment to community service."
"Membership involves a fair amount of time," he explains. "You must be willing to study and take some courses, which can be done online. Then you must attend a certain number of training sessions each year. You're taught how to handle messages properly and how to perform under stressful conditions."
According to Montgomery, ARES offers licensing classes two or three times a year for folks who would like to join the organization but aren't yet licensed radio operators.
"I love to use my radio to communicate with foreign operators all over the world," says Montgomery. "When I do that, I'm a hobbyist. But that's not what ARES is about."