Northville radio operators rise to the occasion
When severe weather hits, New Milford’s Mike Walters springs into action.
He immediately communicates with other amateur radio operators and the National Weather Service to provide firsthand information on a storm’s local progress.
The radio communication program is called Sky Warn.
It is just one of many emergency services provided by Walters as the liaison of the Northville Amateur Radio Association to the Amateur Radio Emergency Services, a national group.
“When a disaster hits, the police and ambulance and fire departments’ hands are full, which means radio traffic on the town’s system is dedicated to first responders and triage,” Walters said. “We partner with agencies including the Red Cross, Homeland Security and the National Weather Service to provide local health and welfare communication.”
NARA members are among the 750,000 amateur radio operators across the nation.
They are more than simply hobbyists. They serve to notify local residents about the site of Red Cross shelters during a disaster and provide a source of emergency communication during extended power outages.
They also provide an infrastructure of trained, federally licensed amateur radio operators.
Ray O’Keefe, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Albany, N.Y., said the office provides training sessions in Litchfield
County twice a year for summer and winter storm events.
“We have all kinds of sophisticated equipment but nothing beats someone looking out of their window and reporting ‘There’s golf ball-sized hail coming down’ or ‘snowfall is picking up, we’ve got seven inches,’ or ‘I see a tornado forming,’ ” O’Keefe said. “We count on our Sky Warning team to tell us what is actually happening in their areas.”
O’Keefe said amateur radio operators such ase NARA members are “a dedicated group of people.”
Gregory G. Davis is the NARA president. He became involved in 2011 with amateur radio after two hurricanes hit the New Milford area and led to an extended power outrage.
“These storms are real disasters,” Davis said. “We provide backup communication for the larger infrastructure. I have a background in technology so it was not much of a leap to study for my FCC licenses.”
Davis said the communication of first responders, police and fire departments, is well established.
A “citizen’s scope” comes in as backup liaison to the public. There could be as many as 2,000 licensed amateur radio operators within a 25-mile radius of New Milford, he said.
Michael Schwarzchild, of New Milford, recently joined NARA. He has earned his first- and second-level FCC licenses, allowing him to communicate on global shortwave bands. He uses a handheld CS700 radio that cost $200.
“For emergency services, there are highly trained folks like Mike (Walters),” Schwarzchild said. “And then there’s folks who check in once a week to see who’s out there. It comes down to being able to communicate during a storm, ‘Hey, there’s a tree down in my driveway. Anybody got a chainsaw?’ ”
Local repeater stations are mounted on two hilltops in New Milford. They allow handheld radio users to band frequency to communicate and are sponsored by ARES and the state police.
“It’s about having a connection with others,” Schwarzchild said. “It’s the original social media.”
Recently, “Field Day” was held, an annual, outdoor amateur radio exercise for emergency preparedness at the New Preston firehouse.