Hurricanes and Hams

Jamaican amateur radio operators serve their communities as extreme weather events increase in frequency across the Caribbean.

Gerald Burton

Although no one can say that any individual hurricane is the direct result of climate change, there is general consensus amongst scientists that global warming has exacerbated the intensity and frequency of hurricanes, and has led to an increased incidence of so-called super-hurricanes.

The Caribbean is particularly susceptible to hurricanes and storms. On a small island, a single bad one can undo years of development work in the space of a few hours. The agricultural, forestry, and fisheries sectors are particularly vulnerable.

Effective communication both in the lead-up to and aftermath of a storm is vital to minimizing the damage to the livelihoods of affected communities.

Every Caribbean country has its own national coordinating agency for disaster preparedness, and beyond the services one expects - police, fire, the Red Cross - amateur (ham) radio and citizens’ band (CB) radio operators are also often part of these emergency networks. In Jamaica, amateur radio operators have a history of aiding hurricane preparedness and emergency communications dating back to the fifties, but with the increase in extreme weather events in the region caused by climate change, it is likely that hams will be called on to provide services ever more frequently.

In 1981, we at the Jamaican Amateur Radio Association formed the Jamaica Amateur Radio Emergency Corps (JAREC), following an extensive upgrading of our high frequency (HF) equipment. This established Jamaica’s first island-wide very high frequency (VHF) repeater system. We are a specialized team that offers hurricane monitoring and emergency communications services to the Red Cross, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), and the Salvation Army.

Our portable stations consist of an HF and VHF transceiver and a battery that operates the equipment, as well as two operators who can relieve each other. The HF radio links us internationally to the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) in Miami. We assist the emergency services by passing messages between them and the NHC. While hurricanes often cause disruptions to the electricity and telephone systems, deep cycle and auto batteries ensure that our repeater system can continue to operate. This is complemented by our HF radio network through which we can relay messages. Often, the NHC in Miami is bombarded with messages from the islands, causing the phone system to become quickly overwhelmed. Ham radio thus offers an alternative channel for getting information through.

We have come a long way in the last two decades. Today, we are able to place a portable two-man station in any community on the island. Thus we can also pass on messages relating to health and welfare and routine messages between communities and the various agencies.

Over the past few years, we have augmented our service with the internet, using it to link distant radio sites via voice over internet protocol (VOIP), as part of the Internet Relay Linking Project (IRLP). We connect the VHF radio to a computer and the radio then links into a repeater system. Any local person with a VHF radio can talk across the miles by accessing the repeater system. The repeater then connects to the computer allowing communications via VOIP to a distant repeater. This gives global coverage to frequencies that are normally only locally accessible.

Regional coordination of these activities has been enhanced through the Caribbean Amateur Radio Meteorological Emergency Network (Carmen). This is a joint project between Caribbean amateur radio operators, the NHC, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association. We ham operators provide supplemental surface weather data to forecasters at the NHC whenever a hurricane approaches land in order for them to refine the forecasts they produce.

Carmen runs five weather stations, which gather data on wind speed, rainfall and atmospheric pressure. They are posted at ham radio operators’ homes on different parts of the island. The operators pass on the data via IRLP or HF radio. Set up to run manually - the Carmen radio operator takes a reading and sends it to the NHC – efforts are underway to establish automatic reporting using solarpowered Automated Position Reporting System (APRS ) units. These would allow operators more time to secure their homes and family, as the units could be placed in critical locations that are usually evacuated when a storm is approaching. The ultimate goal is to install a large number of weather stations across the region, all connected via APRS and automatically sending weather data to the NHC.

In this era of the internet and mobile phones, we hams are often asked why we are still around. Yet, in times of crisis, our communities and even state-of- the-art facilities such as the Hurricane Centre come to depend on us. It may seem like ‘just’ a hobby, but we are proud to serve our nation.

Gerald Burton is the president of JARA. His call sign is 6Y5AG.

15 February 2007

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