SATERN a Crucial Link in Ravaged Caribbean
By: David Ibata
For amateur radio operators working with The Salvation Army, one of the most gratifying experiences of helping the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands – cut off from communications with the outside world by Hurricane Maria – has been transmitting good news to loved ones in the continental United States.
“We had a chance to deliver a birth announcement,” said Bill Feist, disaster liaison for the Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi Division and national liaison for SATERN, the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network. “We were able to pass that on to family members in the United States, that this child had been born safely and mother, child and family were doing just fine. Some people have broken down crying because they’re so relieved to hear anything about their family.”
Feist is based in Jackson, Mississippi, and operates SATERN station WB5ALM for the ALM Division. He and hundreds of amateur radio volunteers have been delivering 20 to 30 “health and welfare” messages a day. For most ordinary folks in hurricane-devastated areas, amateur radio has been the only communications channel open to the outside. SATERN, the organization responsible for emergency and auxiliary communications for the Army’s Emergency Disaster Services, is in its fourth activation since August. The first was for the solar eclipse; and the second, third and fourth, for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
On the ground, The Salvation Army is delivering an average of 14,000 meals per day in 13 fixed sites on Puerto Rico. Food also is being provided to senior centers and firefighters and to people unable to leave their homes. On St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Army has partnered with the Dutch Reformed Church and is serving nearly 3,500 families a day; and on St. John, with a local cafe to serve 1,000 families a day. On St. Croix, the Army is serving up to 1,100 families.
Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola Foundation is providing $1 million to help provide immediate resources for food and shelter in the Caribbean.
On the air, radio operators have been instructed to monitor the International SATERN frequency of 14.265 MHz from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily for urgent messages that may need to be passed along.
“This truly has been a national effort,” Feist said. The International SATERN SSB (voice) Net has been led and monitored by volunteers from all over, he said – from California, where Net Manager Ken Gilliland (call sign AG6SV) lives, to Oklahoma, home of Assistant Net Manager Bob Rogers (WA5EEZ), to New York, Florida and everywhere in between.
“Ken, in particular, has put in an enormous amount of volunteer time,” said Feist, whose call sign is WB8BZH. “He’s been putting in 12-hour days since this all began. He only took over as net manager this past July and had barely six or seven weeks on the job before organizing the eclipse operation, followed almost immediately by three major hurricanes, each worse than the one before it.”
“We expect this to go on for quite a while,” Feist said. Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure “wasn’t all that good to start with, and when all the poles went down, most of the telephone lines went down, too. Without power, your cellphones go down. Cellphone towers have generators, but they’ll last only as long as they have fuel – and with 100 mph winds, a lot of those towers didn’t survive, either.”
Feist has been preparing a team to deploy to the Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands Division if requested by the Eastern Territory.
“We’re looking for folks with special skills – for example, for the digital communications we can use, such as sending email by radio,” he said. “Also, people who have the proper licenses to be on the frequencies that allow us to talk back to the United States. They’d also have to be physically fit and credentialed for emergency work with The Salvation Army.”