When hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Caribbean one week apart in 2017, they left hundreds of thousands of people cut off from sources of aid when all modern means of communication were destroyed. Many residents resolved to never be left in the dark again.
On this episode of the NNLM Discovery podcast, Region 2 user experience and education strategist, Debra Trogdon-Livingston, tells us how amateur radio – commonly known as “ham radio” – is used to provide a vital link to emergency aid and health information in the Caribbean. She shares the story of NNLM grantee Ronda Herbert, RN, who received a grant to provide funding to host CPR and AED training for members of the Amateur Radio Club on St. Thomas in the USVI, and to purchase repeaters to enhance the amateur radio signal throughout the island.
You can view a short video about the story here on the NLM YouTube Channel.
The NNLM is the outreach arm of the National Library of Medicine with the mission to advance the progress of medicine and improve the public health by providing all U.S. health professionals with equal access to biomedical information and improving the public's access to information to enable them to make informed decisions about their health. The seven Health Sciences Libraries function as the Regional Medical Library (RML) for their respective region, with Region 2 consisting of: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To learn more about Region 2 visit: http://www.nnlm.gov/about/regions/region2.
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Ham Radio Club
(Ham Radio Chatter) Five, four, three, two, one.
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This is NNLM Discovery, a podcast from the network of the National Library of Medicine. I'm Librarian Yamila El-Khayat, and I'll be your host through this podcast series exploring how NNLM is engaging with communities to provide access to trusted information for the purpose of improving the public's health. Today's episode is Amateur Radio Club, a story from region two. User experience and education Strategist, Debra Trogdon-Livingston, will be joining us today. Hi, Debra.
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Our podcast episode started off a little different than normal. It sounded like two people on walkie talkies.
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You're close. Those were two Hams doing a signal quality check.
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Hams... Like the pig.
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No, not the pig. Ham is actually another name for amateur radio operators. Region two has made it a priority to provide grants for emergency preparedness and amateur radio clubs are essential for helping in disasters, as we'll learn in this story.
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So why is Region two focused on emergency preparedness?
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Good question. One thing that makes Region two unique from other regions is that we're comprised of several states that get hit by severe weather events from tornadoes in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee to hurricanes in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. We also represent Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, who are impacted by hurricanes, but also get a significant number of earthquakes, which could lead to tsunamis.
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Today, I'll share how the NNLM provides grants which support technology and health information in ways that really meet the specific needs of our members. Our story takes place in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Yamila, what do you know about the U.S. Virgin Islands?
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I know they're in the Caribbean somewhere.
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I get that. Before I joined our region, I didn't know much either. Ronda Herbert, our grant awardee, is a registered nurse. She also runs her own nonprofit, Health Dove Inc., which provides health information to the island as well as online. Here's Ronda describing the U.S. Virgin Islands for us mainlanders.
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The U.S. Virgin Islands, we are a group of islands four islands St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island. And they're a melting pot of different cultures. We're called paradise. And so everybody likes to come to the Virgin Islands. And we are about two and a half hours from Miami. It's tropical weather is always sunny, except for the hurricane season.
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This is the Caribbean. And so we're, we are accustomed to the storms and hurricanes, especially from June to November or the ending of November, which is hurricane season.
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Saint Thomas, where Ronda resides, is only about 50 miles from Puerto Rico. And on a clear day, you can see this neighboring island across the ocean. Yamila, I'm sure you haven't forgotten what happened to Puerto Rico from Hurricanes Irma and Maria?
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Of course not. It was horrible.
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Well, I think a lot of people have forgotten that the U.S. Virgin Islands were also hit by these two massive hurricanes. Here's Ronda talking about her experience during that time.
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2017, we had two major hurricanes, Category five Hurricanes, Irma and Maria. They came one week apart of each other. Yeah, I saw the islands were devastated. We were without electricity. We were without internet, cell phones, cell phone towers were out. It was, it was horrible.
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Steve DeBlasio is the deputy director of logistics for VITEMA, which stands for Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency. VITIMA is the agency that ensures the territory's resilience to disasters. They are the counterpart to FEMA for the islands. Steve was assigned to help the islands after Irma and Maria. Here's Steve describing the aftermath of these hurricanes.
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We were down power wise for months. Major damage to housing. Tremendous amount of housing was lost. Road damages, major landslides. It was, it was a clearly a very bad disaster zone.
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And I was I was stuck in a shelter with 170 other individuals. I was assisting during the shelter. And after that experience where we couldn't reach anybody, we couldn't call our families to get help or to tell them how we are doing. I decided, well there had to be another way. And so that's why I joined become a ham operator.
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Yamila, did you know ham radio has been around for over a hundred years?
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A hundred years, and it's still being used. That's a long time for a radio and a ham to be around.
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Yeah, it sure is. It has been around for a long time and it has saved a lot of lives. And it still does. It uses specific radio frequencies assigned by the Federal Communications Commission, FCC, in the U.S. Here's Steve DeBlasio again describing the technology.
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Well, ham radio is the use of radio frequency across the airwaves. No wire connections at all. It's radio frequency. It is it is a way of communicating, when all else is down. All you really need is 12 volts of power to power your radio, or a handheld transceiver in your hand, and you can actually transmit voice and or data across the airwaves.
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Ham Radio Club
This is a mobile radio, over. Roger, Roger, copy mobile radio. OK, you have a great afternoon. (Ham radio chatter)
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We also talked to Henry Smith about this technology. Henry is a certified amateur radio instructor on Saint Thomas.
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You must have a license in order to speak on ham radio. You can listen. Anybody can listen. You can communicate with persons close by. Or you can communicate with persons all over the world. If you have proper antennas and you have the proper radio. Some people refer to a ham radio, oh it’s ancient technology, but I point out to everyone that it's the technology that works that seldom fails.
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Once you have it properly set up and people trained, it seldom fails. Astronauts. Astronauts on the space station. Most of them are already licensed in ham radio. They carry ham radio on the space station as standard equipment. Because when all else fails, they're confident that, you know, ham radio would work.
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Now that we know what ham radio is, let's talk about Ronda's grant submission. There were two parts to her submission. The first was providing funding to host CPR and AED training for members of the Amateur Radio Club on the island. I asked Ronda and Steve why amateur radio operators should be trained in CPR and first aid.
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Ham operators they assist in disasters. They, we involve in rescue operations. We use our radios to help locate individuals who are lost and so if something should happen medically where somebody passes out or they need first aid, then amateur radio operators will be able to assist, provide CPR for that person, that individual who is ill or hurt until professional help arrives.
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The value of that is because you never know when there's going to be a need that someone has for immediate medical attention, which could save their life. I am a ham radio enthusiast myself. My call sign is Kilo, Charlie two Lima Mike Zulu. I provide that amateur link back to VITEMA. The amateur radio folks and the equipment is always there to support emergencies.
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Impressive. It never occurred to me that ham operators could save lives. That's pretty nifty. What was the second part?
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Good question. The second portion of the grant was purchasing repeaters to enhance the amateur radio signal throughout the island. Every day the club tests their signals and reports on the weather at 0700. Here's Henry testing out his small handheld transmitter signal on top of Crown Mountain. This test showcases the importance of repeaters, and Henry explains the technology.
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Victor Papa two Victor Kilo Alpha. This is Kilo, Papa two Juliet. Over.
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Ham Radio Club
Kilo Papa two Juliet. This Victor Papa two Kilo Alpha. I copy, over.
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Good afternoon, Kion. Good afternoon. We were up here at Crown Mountain at the Repeater site. What's my signal like, Keyon?
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Ham Radio Club
Henry you’re coming in five by nine. Excellent signal from you. Over.
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Five by nine. Five by nine. That's an excellent signal. Thanks for the report. You two are five by nine, Keyon. Where are you? Over.
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Ham Radio Club
I am currently in Belmont Western Tortola, British Virgin Island, at home transmitting. Over.
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Thank you very much Keyon. Just wanted to do a radio check with you and be sure that we have communication going. Victor Papa two Victor Kilo Alpha Kilo Papa two Juliet 73 Keyon. The radio check that I just did was very important. We do them periodically. We need to check to see that we are maintaining communications in cases of emergency.
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In the event of emergency we might have power outages. Major equipment may be damaged. But with this little handheld radio I just demonstrated that I could speak to other persons across the island as well as someone in the British Virgin Islands. The person I spoke to, Victor Papa two kilo Alpha. That's his call sign. His name is Keyon.
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Keyon works with the Office of Disaster Management in the British Virgin Islands. He was about 20, 25 miles away and without the repeater we probably could not communicate with him. But this illustrates that with this little radio and aid of a repeater, we could speak to Keyon, and what the repeater does, it takes the signal from a small radio like this, a small five watt signal, and it repeats that signal.
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So persons at a distance so we can hear it. It does this using what you might think of almost as an amplifier within the repeater. It enhances a signal, it changes it from five watts to maybe 80 watts, and that allows the signal to go much further. The Virgin Islands is composed of many, many islands. So in order to communicate with places like Saint Croix, which is about 40 miles away, we need the repeaters.
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Saint Thomas already has a repeater on the island, but Henry and Steve talk about why acquiring two more repeaters with this NNLM grant is such a big deal.
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It has a tremendous impact and we're very grateful to Ronda for applying for this grant. Why is so important is because with one repeater system, we might not have coverage over the entire island. Our island is mountainous and because of that, even though our antennas and our repeater is located at a high elevation, they are what we call shadows or dead zones that the signal may not be able to get into, because signals tend to be generally fairly straight.
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If you don't have line of sight to that repeater, you're going to have a hard time hitting it. So to add additional repeaters into these, let me say blind spots. Without that, we do have folks who just are not going to be able to hit that, a repeater to get into the network. So it'll expand the capabilities of the responding amateur enthusiasts that are always looking to help.
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We'll end our story with our grant awardee, Ronda. I asked her why this grant is so important to Saint Thomas.
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Oh, because we are an island and we are our closest help is two and a half hours away, because usually when we are impacted, Puerto Rico is also impacted, as well as the other islands, because of how they the hurricanes come up the chain. And so it's important to us to be able to reach out and get messages out for help and for assistance.
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That’s the reason why I got into ham radio, you know, it’s a service. Ham radio is a is a hobby and it's a service that brings together technology, communications and people. And so I'm doing this as a service to the community.
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Wow. Debra! What a powerful story. The network is investing in technology and health information in a whole new way.
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You're right. We have an advisory committee who is trying to find ways to improve emergency preparedness throughout our entire region. And we will continue to look for ways to support these efforts.
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Thanks Debra, for sharing your region's story with us.
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You're welcome. We're already working on our next one.
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We’ll be featuring other profiles, grants and interesting information from all of our regions during this season of NNLM Discovery. For more information, including a video featuring content from this story, check out the links within this episode's description. The NNLM offers free training, partnerships, and many other valuable resources that help to improve health and wellness in communities across the country.
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Learn more at NNLM.gov.