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LI ham radio operators ready to 'get the message out' during Hurricane Florence

Amateur operators, loosely connected through local and national volunteer groups, communicate via equipment that will stay online even if phone and electric service is out.

A ham radio operator who loses power can

A ham radio operator who loses power can still relay a message to other counterparts anywhere. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

With Hurricane Florence poised to batter the Carolinas, a group of Long Islanders, armed only with centuries-old technology, stands ready to assist if the power goes down and lines of communication are inaccessible for days.

Amateur radio operators, loosely connected through more than three dozen local and national volunteer organizations, say they will be at the ready when Florence makes landfall, manning their ham radios and seeking to relay information from the storm-battered region.

"People want to tell their loved ones that they are OK and safe," said Bob Myers of Copiague, vice president of the Great South Bay Amateur Radio Club. "And this is a way to get the message out."

Amateur radio operators communicate using a variety of frequency bands across the radio spectrum that are not reliant on cell service or landlines.

Ham radios antennas are dependable — if not a bit antiquated — and can be set up in practically any location, meaning that an operator who loses power in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, or in Wilmington, North Carolina, can still relay a message to counterparts anywhere. The equipment can run on generators or batteries in an emergency.

Often the requests are simple. A voice call or message via Morse code may ask operators to call a certain phone number — on Long Island or across the globe — to tell friends or family they are safe.

Others seek to relay critical information to law enforcement or emergency rescue services about a family running dangerously low on medication or a downed tree or a fire, operators say.

"Amateur radio can provide communications without existing infrastructure," said Mel Granick, of Syosset, a retired radio broadcaster and a member of the Order of the Boiled Owls, an amateur radio club. "It's a backup system for normal communication."

Amateur radio operators, who obtain licenses from the Federal Communications Commission, have long served as a key avenue for emergency communications during major weather events.

During superstorm Sandy, volunteer operators provided critical assistance to local emergency operations centers and shelters across Long Island when most of the region lost power.

Ham radio operators also sprang into action last year when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, destroying electrical and telephone systems. Some traveled to the storm-soaked island to set up temporary shortwave communication systems. Others worked their radios from their home or office.

"We are here to provide a public service," said Myers, adding that many operators receive training in emergency response procedures. "It makes you feel good to tell a family that their loved one is safe. It's very rewarding."

The American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio enthusiasts, activated its emergency response team on Tuesday in preparation for Florence.

The group shipped seven Ham Aid kits to South Carolina, which is expected to receive a direct hit from the storm, to assist with the preparations. The group sent similar kits to Puerto Rico following Maria.

Ham radio operators stationed in South Carolina, who had been working 12-hour shifts in the state's Emergency Management Division, moved to 24-hour shifts on Thursday, said ARRL South Carolina Section Emergency Coordinator Billy Irwin.

Richard Cetron, of Old Bethpage, president of the Long Island Mobile Amateur Radio Club, said it's unclear if his 400-member group will be needed to assist in the days ahead. But if the call goes out, Cetron said, his members are prepared to help.

"When all else fails, when the phones and the internet goes down," Cetron said, "amateur radio operators will get the message out."

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