By Cherise Kaechele

The Observer

Although they are ready if they are needed, a group of volunteers hope their skills will never be put to the test — if their skills are required, that means the Union County community is having a very bad day.

The Amateur Radio Emergency System is a worldwide network that uses ham radio operators and will be the last step in defense should a major emergency arise. In Union County, if everything else has failed, the group of five ARES members will step up and take over communication necessary to get help using their own radio system.

Union County Emergency Services Manager JB Brock said ARES is a backup for his department’s function. In an emergency, both entities can make contact with resources.

“It’s a parallel system built for amateur radio,” Brock said. “(ARES members) built their own infrastructure. They can communicate when we need to communicate.”

The members practice for a hypothetical emergency situation — just like local first responders do regularly — but this all-volunteer organization is the last hope.

“If we’re using (ARES), things have gone very bad (for Union County),” Brock said.

Jason Fouts is the emergency coordinator for the local ARES volunteers. He said the group recently joined with Wallowa County’s emergency radio system, so they can communicate with their members regularly.

He said the members of the group have varying backgrounds, but they all have an interest in amateur radio systems and are willing to devote time and training to learn how to use the equipment necessary to be an ARES member.

The ARES system in Oregon was expanded after a 2007 flood in Vernonia,
34 miles northwest of Portland. During the flood, major emergency systems were knocked out and ham radio operators stepped up to help.

“Severe winter storms wreaked havoc on Oregon’s North Coast and flooded the City of Vernonia, knocking out 911 services, internet and phone service for an extended period of time,” according to an article on the American Radio Relay League website. “The Oregon Office of Emergency Management said during the storms, the radio operators were ‘tireless in their efforts to keep the systems connected.’ When even state police had difficulty reaching some of their own troopers, ham radio worked, setting up networks so emergency officials could communicate and relaying lists of supplies needed in stricken areas.”

Because of the help provided by the amateur radio operators, the governor of Oregon allocated funds to install radio systems in any county that was interested in setting up an emergency system.

“Using (the radio) equipment and other amateur equipment already in place at the (emergency operation center), ARES teams will have to quickly create a communications network, in some instances without depending on other infrastructure such as telephones or internet,” said ARRL Oregon Section Public Information Coordinator Steve Sanders in the article. “Many will not use commercial electric power. Despite these limitations, the ARES teams should not only be able to quickly pass local messages, but also communicate with other regions of the country. The ability to pass information in and out of disaster areas is crucial to the effectiveness of emergency responders.”

See complete story in Friday's Observer