NETCOM's Ham Radio Operators Tackle Gustav

NETCOM’s Ham Radio Operators Tackle Gustav
Bill Sexton (N1IN)
Ft Huachuca–Hurricane Gustav didn’t just pose a critical final exam for the crisis managers of FEMA and levee builders in the Corps of Engineers. To the volunteer radio operators in Army MARS, too, it was the first real flexing under fire of new communications muscle developed after Hurricane Katrina.

And the system worked.

--At several evacuation centers in Mississippi and Louisiana and National Guard refueling points in Texas, a handful of deployment teams from the Army Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) provided backup voice and digital communications as Gustav raged past.

--The Army MARS e-mail over HF radio system–WinLink–networked emergency operations centers across the affected zone. The Transportation Security Administration and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief were key partners on the country-wide WinLink net.

--Augmented net schedules kept communications open throughout the region until Gustav blew itself out at midweek. MARS stations countrywide had monitored for any emergency transmission. The Army MARS gateway station at Ft Huachuca, AAA9USA, which is manned by contract personnel, served as central coordinating point.

--Throughout the emergency, some 850 Army MARS volunteers in FEMA regions four and six were on standby to relay critical message traffic from their home stations, a goodly number of them ready to respond with portable Emergency Communications rigs if needed. Fellow hams from the Air Force and Navy-Marine Corps branches of MARS shared net operations during the emergency in a carefully-prepared demonstration of interoperability.

“This kind of turnout wasn’t really anything new,” said Stuart S. Carter, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is the Army MARS Chief. “MARS has been working hurricanes since the 1920s.

“What was new is the carefully tailored, almost seamless fit between our operators and the agencies we support,” he said. “That’s what was missing when Hurricane Katrina happened.”

Gustav was no Katrina, Carter went on, “but it exercised just about every aspect of disaster response.

“I was particularly impressed by the meticulous preparation from Army MARS region leadership, through Army MARS state leadership on down, and by the really remarkable skills shown by the deployment teams out there on their own,” he said. “I think `awesome’ truly applies to their performance.”

This is written before any final conclusions and statistics could be gathered on stations activated and messages handled. Nevertheless the experience was already being put to work in the preparing for Tropical Storm Hannah and as operations orders were being drawn up for Ike.

Army MARS capacity for deployment had been put to the test, now it would be staying power.

Geography more or less thrust the mantle of tactical leadership on Jim Hamilton, (AAA9RD/K4QDF), of Orlando, FL, the director of Army MARS Region Four which covers the southeast from North Carolina to Mississippi. He’s a retired U.S. Army aviator and commercial airline pilot, now a Florida civil servant.

Hamilton’s partner in organizing operations is Army MARS Region Six Director Ken Winkler (KA5ARU/AAA6RD)of Tomball TX, whose coastal territory runs from Louisiana to the Mexico border. Together they coordinated with Navy-Marine Corps and Air Force MARS region leadership in sorting out frequency assignments and net operation times.

One evidence of interoperability, or what Chief Carter calls jointness: Region 4’s Emergency Response Team 1, four members led by former region director Paul Drothler (WO4U/AAV4DJ from Rossville TN, staged to Alexandria LA in neighboring Region 6 supporting the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief evacuee operation.

Region 6 meanwhile dispatched four teams with Texas National Guard units that set up refueling stations for the fleets of buses carrying evacuees to inland Texas points (that was a Katrina lesson learned.) A fifth team operated within the state mobile command center at Bryan, outside the Texas capital of Austin.

There was jointness, too, with the regular ham radio community. Cliff Segar KD4GT, a member of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, joined Drothler’s team 1 headed for Alexandria.

In an extraordinary demonstration of WinLink’s versatility, Segar’s MARS membership application was transmitted on the run by mobile radio to Ft Huachuca, AZ. Army MARS administrator Martha Smith AAA9M promptly WinLinked back his training call letters AAR4IB/T. “He is gaining skills by the minute,” Team 1 responded. “He will likely have most of his basic training done by the time he gets home.”

(Segar’s home, by the way, overlooks I-40 near Rockwood TN and is widely known for hosting a big billboard that proclaims: “Amateur Radio Works.”)

After a long day of severe storms and heavy rain en route, Paul Drothler’s Team 1 carried off another deployment feat on arrival in Alexandria. He reported in to Operations Chief Hays at Ft Huachuca via a phone patch established by Pat Lane AAA9EC in Memphis.

Since the inception of MARS in radio’s early days, its mission has been preparing and providing backup communication for military and civil agencies when natural or manmade calamity knocks out normal channels. Licensed radio amateurs provide their time and equipment at no cost to government. The Defense Department oversees their rigorous training and allocates special military frequencies.

Army MARS, a unit of the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th SC (A) at Ft Huachuca, counts some 2,800 members currently. The other two branches swell the total membership to roughly 5,000 amateurs spread across the country, available virtually anywhere if needed. Active-duty service members are eligible, too, and a number operate these days from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Europe and the Pacific.

From the Korean War to Desert Storm MARS was mostly known for the tens of thousands of free “MARSgrams” and phone patches it provided between service members in combat and their families back home. E-mail and cell phones are ascendant now, but the free MARSgram service is still available at

Two things are new to the MARS of 2008. One is the belated awareness among newly-reorganized federal agencies just how well-prepared Army MARS was to assist them. Chief Carter’s determined public awareness campaign took care of that after he volunteered for the MARS command in late 2006. The other is the WinLink digital messaging system, which makes short-wave radio communication as accessible as conventional e-mail.

WinLink, a non-commercial software application developed by hams, came to MARS three years ago under the leadership of MARS Operations Chief Grant Hays (WB6OTS/AAA9O) and Steve Waterman (K4CJX/AAA9AC), one of the developers and now Army MARS automation coordinator on the Chief’s special staff.

Early on the Transportation Security Administration turned to the Army MARS system for backing up communications at major airports. And when Hurricane Dolly blustered toward shore last month, key airports in Florida, Georgia and Alabama had WinLink stations up and running with operators trained by Army MARS. Other emergency agencies are in the process of following TSA’s lead.

Another lesson put to good use was region director Hamilton’s decision spinning off actual command of net operations. He delegated that responsibility to Georgia state director Larry Lowe AAA4GA and his crew of experienced net controllers. That freed Hamilton and the region 4 staff to concentrate on overall coordination and long-range planning. The latter was quickly becoming urgent as tropical storm activity ballooned in mid-week, with Florida a likely target. Again.

In sprawling, storm-prone Region 6–Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico–Texas state director Dave Martin (AAA6TX/K5YFO) answered the call from the Texas Military Forces to support the pre-landfall evacuation effort, then oversaw the unified MARS response as Gustav’s dying gasps drenched northern Louisiana, Louisiana and Arkansas .

At Ft Polk in western Louisiana two MARS trainees–the father-son team of Robert (AAR6DP-T / WB5JZP) and Terry (AAR6DQ-T / W5MTP) Partigianoni--deployed to the Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital which was expected to be in the hurricane’s eye. A third Partigianoni, Robert’s wife Joan (AAR6DO-T / KA2BRS), took over the permanently-installed MARS station in the Ft Polk Joint Readiness Training Center HQ, AAR6UAB.

The Partigianonis at the hospital established two stations, one inside handy to the hospital EOC with VHF Telpac connectivity, the other outside in an RV complete with HF antennas, emergency power and access to the WinLink system as well as MARS HF nets. Their innovative intranet getup processed 27 messages in addition to linking the hospital with the Vernon Parish (county) EOC.

At the JRTC HQ EOC, Joan reported processing 15 messages. “The command was very pleased with the operation and said to pass on their thanks,” she said. “MARS net controls did an excellent job on the nets to keep traffic rolling smoothly.”

Robert Partigianoni said the outside station easily weathered 50 mph gusts at Gustav’s height but did lose commercial power at one point. Fortunately, a late course change sent the storm’s center to the east.

click to