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Amateur Radio Operators Provide Communications Support in Haiti

03/03/2010

After the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti on January 12, many Amateur Radio operators asked how they could volunteer their time and service to assist with communications support. When Project Medishare -- a partnership between the University of Miami Medical School (UM) and physicians and health officials in Haiti -- needed help with their communications, Amateur Radio operators were quick to respond.

According to Jack Satterfield, W4GRJ/AFA4DG, Medishare has constructed several health clinics in Haiti over the years -- all of which were destroyed in the earthquake. "Medishare was able to rapidly deploy medical teams and assets to begin the overwhelming task facing the post earthquake medical needs," he told the ARRL. "A field hospital was established within the relatively secure boundaries of the airport in Port-au-Prince. Large tents were supplied to set up make shift operating rooms, patient treatment and recovery areas and mass sleeping quarters for the volunteers. The overall conditions were basic to primitive; however, the medical care being provided was extremely high considering the overall conditions. We needed to establish sustainable logistics for supplies from cots, food, water, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals to handling the more than 100 volunteers who were rotating in and out every 5-7 days. Establishing reliable local and international communications was a high priority. UM, through its internal IT group, set up two broadband Vsat satellite links to handle e-mail and two channels of voice Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone circuits."

Satterfield said that the problem with the Vsat system was stability and reliability: "UoM Vice President for Facilities and Operations Ron Bogue was the Director in Charge of the Haiti operations. His concern about the unreliable communications caused him to contact Julio Ripoll, WD4R, with whom he has worked for years as the architect for UoM Medical facilities. Ron knew that Julio is a ham radio operator and very involved with the National Hurricane Center in Miami and its Amateur Radio station, WX4NHC."

Ripoll then contacted ARRL to request help in soliciting volunteers. ARRL immediately sent down an HF Go Kit -- through the ARRL's Ham Aid Program -- and put Ripoll in touch with ARRL West Central Florida Section Emergency Coordinator and Navy MARS Florida State Deputy Director Neil Lauritsen, W4NHL/NNN0TFH.

"Julio explained to Neil the mission profile and told him that he only had two WX4NHC operators ready to go to Haiti at that time, but that he had requested operators to go to Haiti to support two or three weeks of backup communications until such time the UoM is able to stabilize their permanent satellite system," Satterfield told the ARRL. "WX4NHC Coordinator John McHugh, K4AG, assembled the list of equipment and UM/Medishare provided an emergency purchase order and the equipment for both stations -- one in Haiti and one in Miami -- and we received the equipment the very next day."

Simultaneous to the first Haiti Team being deployed, the WX4NHC Club built a complete station at the Haiti Command Center Building at UoM Medical Campus -- even erecting antennas on the roof in two days. Members of the UM's IT Department -- Dale Botwin, KR4OR, and Ivan Menendez, KB4RMB -- configured the HF radio for remote control, Skype and Winlink e-mail. "We later added EchoLink as an internal coordination system between UMH Haiti and the principal coordinators stateside, with the help from Rob Macedo, KD1CY, and Tony Langdon, VK3JED."

Operations in Haiti

The original mission profile was to set up a HF station capable of providing back up voice via phone patch and back-up e-mail capability via Winlink. According to Satterfield, both of these objectives could be met using normal Amateur Radio frequencies, but with limitations due to propagation and stations available when needed for phone patch traffic, the team decided to increase their flexibility and overall capability by using MARS assets "to extend the Winlink stations available and the Air Force MARS dedicated phone patch circuit that is available 24/7," Satterfield said. "The volunteer teams were arranged in teams of two operators, with at least one being a MARS operator. Since I was on Team 1, I had the opportunity to set the station up and establish basic operating procedures. The equipment initially taken to Haiti by Team 1 included the following:

  • IC-718, AH-710 Folded dipole, supplied by ARRL. We modified it for MARS use in Miami, prior to going to Haiti
  • Ameritron ALS-600 solid state 600 W amplifier, supplied by UoM
  • GAP Vertical antenna, supplied by UoM
  • VHF 2 meter FT-1900 (field modified for marine and MARS) and a Comet GP-3 antenna, supplied by UoM
  • VHF 2 meter handhelds, supplied by UoM
  • FT-897 (MARS modified), supplied by Satterfield
  • Vertical 3 500 MHz antenna, supplied by Satterfield
  • SCS Pactor III modem, supplied by Satterfield
  • VHF/UHF (MARS modified) handheld transceiver, supplied by Satterfield

"When Team 2 arrived, they brought with them an ICOM IC-746 PRO and an SCS Pactor III modem -- supplied by Navy MARS -- to replace the equipment I was taking back to the US," Satterfield said.

"The selection of equipment was based on anticipated requirements according to the original mission profile," Satterfield told the ARRL. "We got the station operational for Winlink and phone patch traffic. The VHF was set on 146.52 for communications with Ron Tomo, KE2UK/AAT2BC, at the Nassau medical clinic, approximately 5 miles from our location. The Nassau medical clinic was very limited in medical resources; consequently, there was a lot of traffic between our respective stations using Miami Medical as a resource for patient consulting and patient transfers to Miami Medical, to other medical facilities and to the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship operated by the United States Navy."

Once the need to establish direct communications with the Comfort was apparent, Satterfield said that the Amateur Radio communications support teams needed to get their VHF radio working on the marine frequencies: "We were able to download the MARS mod info for the FT-1900 and got it operational on the marine frequencies. Since I am a licensed USCG Captain (fishing guide), I am very familiar with the marine channels and protocol. We contacted the USNS Comfort on guard channel 16, using station ID as 'MARS RADIO Port-au-Prince Airport.' Once contact was made, we moved to working frequencies and passed the priority and emergency traffic. Communications with the USNS Comfort were conducted seamlessly by using MARS training of short messages with the strict use of PRO-WORDS. The communication link with the Comfort was critical to saving a lot of lives.

Satterfield said the Amateur Radio teams were able to conduct approximately 25 phone patches on the Air Force phone patch net and the maritime 14.300 net. "Having access to the Air Force phone patch net was extremely valuable, providing virtually 100 percent phone patch availability, regardless of propagation or time of day or night," he told the ARRL. "All were routine health and welfare traffic, and were extremely appreciated by the Miami Medical personnel. We were also asked to establish a communications link with the US Joint Operations Command (JOC) to coordinate certain local security concerns. We were able to establish contact with JOC on 50.125 MHz. Again, strict use of MARS protocol, including use of PRO-WORDS, made for seamless communications."

One of the unexpected communication needs, Satterfield said, was to maintain the GMRS radios being used by the UoM personnel: "They had approximately 12 radios, most of which were not working at the time we arrived. We were able to get all operational; most of them had dead batteries, mis-matched battery connections or the wrong frequencies. They worked fine within the hospital grounds, but could not work when needed at longer distances. We tuned the FT-897 to Channel 21 -- 462.700 MHz -- on the Chameleon vertical antenna and acted as a manual repeater to relay traffic between operators." The VHF/UHF MARS mod handheld that Satterfield brought to Haiti was also put into service on 462.700 when extended range was needed. Winlink was used for routine traffic. "Its primary purpose was to provide backup for emergency traffic should the Vsat e-mail link go down," he said. "This was never needed, but having the capability was a safety net that met the mission requirements."

Observations

"The major item that jumps out of this operation is the importance of interoperability," Satterfield told the ARRL. "I know a lot of our recent MARS training and exercises have been focused on interoperability, but this actual event put it to the ultimate test. The Army, Navy/Marine Corps and Air Force MARS each stepped in with a coordinated effort, and each with a defined support role. In addition, the ARRL was there from the beginning with equipment -- through its Ham Aid Program -- and reciprocal licensing support by contacting the FCC to clear the use of commercial traffic, to support of ordering medical supplies and other commercial logistic requirements."

Lauritsen concurred: "The combination of available frequencies -- both MARS and the amateur frequencies -- as well as the combination of operators, allowed us to provide the best of both worlds in communications to the University of Miami and to Nassau University Medical team and to the Southern Baptists' SBDR group. All three non-governmental organizations have had nothing but praise for our volunteers."

The combined Amateur Radio/MARS efforts to support the University of Miami Project MEDISHARE ended on Monday March 1, 2010.

Personnel Involved

UMH/Medishare Haiti Team Information

  • Haiti Team 1: Jack Satterfield, W4GRJ/AFA4DG, and Louis Cruz, N4LDG (week 1)
  • Haiti Team 2: Carl Marchese, WA2STL/NNN0YTB, and Miguel Parages, KG9C (week 2)
  • Haiti Team 3: Bill Williams, AG4QX/NNN0YTD/T, and Gary Mentro, N3OS/NNN0EKB (week-3)
  • Haiti Team 4: George Riedel, N1EZZ/NN0ICH,and Larry Ambuel, AA8QS (week-4)
  • Haiti Team 5: Ronald Meihls, KB3MBS, and Allen Shuff, W9ON/NNN0APN (week-5)

UMH/Medishare Miami WX4NHC TeamĀ 

  • Dale Botwin, KR4OR
  • Dr Jim Hirschman, K4TCV
  • John McHugh, K4AG
  • Ivan Menendez, KB4RMB
  • Julio Ripoll, WD4R

EchoLink Support TeamĀ 

  • Rod Macedo, KD1CY
  • Tony Langdon, VK3JED

The Maritime Net made a lot of phones patches and handled many pieces of traffic regarding equipment coordination between the University of Miami Hospital in Miami, the University of Miami Hospital in Haiti, Jean-Robert Galliard, HH2JR (President of Radio Club de Haiti), and Father John Henault, HH6JH (Orphanage on Ile de Vache, Haiti).

Maritime Mobile Service Net

  • Rick Poole, WA1RKT
  • Fred Moore, W3ZU
  • Bill Sturridge, KI4MMZ

All photos by Louis Cruz, N4LDG. You can see more of Cruz's photos of the Project Medishare operation here.



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