When a disaster strikes, communications may become spotty or even gone completely. Cell phone towers may be down, land lines even disrupted, and if the Internet is offline, there goes email. Keeping communications open for hospitals and other health care facilities during these types of crises are what amateur radio operators - or "hams" - train for once a week, as members of the South Carolina Healthcare Emergency Amateur Radio Team, or SC HEART for short.
Made up of volunteers from across the state, SC HEART conducts exercises, which it calls Training Nets, from various locations in South Carolina. One recent such exercise was run by ham operator Warren Richey at the Charleston V.A. hospital, with operators listening and checking in from places from Aiken and Darlington County to Pickens and Beaufort - as well as from out of state locations such as Asheville, N.C.
"Our goal is to have those amateur radio operators in those hospitals to be able to pass traffic back and forth about the amount of patients they receive, if there's any diversions (en route by ambulance from one hospital to another). During a natural disaster, if we lose cell phone towers, if we lose Internet access, we're gonna depend on those amateur radio operators to keep the communication lines open," said Scott Phillips, emergency preparedness coordinator for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
Alicia Fletcher, emergency manager for the Charleston V.A. hospital, added "this is something that we know is reliable, is very clear. We can communicate very effectively without having to worry about dropping calls in specific areas, signal strength not being strong, or the system being overwhelmed."
But because the hospital has generators that can provide power for days in case of natural disaster, Fletcher is more appreciative of SC HEART for the help it can offer in man-made crises: "This would really become critical in those times where there was a complete network outage that took our phones out. Cyber attacks, things like that."
Phillips pointed out the value of ham radio in recalling a recent hurricane disaster in the Caribbean. "During 2017 when Puerto Rico was decimated as a result, the only way they were actually able to get any communication off that island was through their amateur radio operators."
He said SC HEART volunteers also lent a vital helping hand when emergency responder communications were overworked following the historic flood of 2015: "We had play-by-play from amateur radios because they were out there. And they were giving us real life updates on road closures, dams breaching...no one asked them to do it. They were just out there helping their community."
Anticipating a future which may include an increasing number of hurricanes or other disasters, Phillips, who recruits operators for SC HEART, hopes to bring more people into amateur radio so that the flow of potentially life-saving communications will continue in decades to come.