By Jeff Slusher, Virginia Army MARSOctober 17, 2008
FORT BELVOIR, Va. - While the internet, cell phones, palm computers and '"all things digital" appear to be at the center of emergency communications planning, a group of amateur radio operators recently demonstrated techniques to keep emergency messages flowing without all the modern tools to which we have all become accustomed.
The demonstration was conducted last week by the Army's Military Affiliate Radio System to key officials of the U.S. Army Materiel Command headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va.
MARS operators transmitted mock emergency traffic over the airwaves instead of the more conventional internet method. With radios connected to computer networks on either end, key staff can use Outlook or whatever email client they would normally use - but with a radio connection replacing the internet connection.
Some of the messages transmitted also included high resolution "situation awareness" photographs also transmitted via radio.
Last week's MARS demonstration also included a "phone patch" between AMC officials at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Rock Island, Ill., using high frequency radio.
Army MARS is an organization known to many formerly deployed Soldiers for providing phone patches and MARSGRAM messages to home, especially in the days before email, cell phones, and the internet.
Larry Walker of Warrenton Virginia, Emergency Operations Officer for Army MARS Region 3 (which includes Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Colombia) directed the operation from a small park shelter adjacent to the AMC headquarters facility.
Walker was supported on-site by Rick Low of Reston and via radio by Bruce Freund, the MARS Emergency Operations Officer for the state of Virginia. Other MARS operators were positioned throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
The team operated on battery power, using only long-wire antennas. It took the group an hour to set-up and tear-down. Walker, a retired Army colonel, has been a MARS radio operator for 48 years and amateur radio operator for over 55 years.
The all-volunteer MARS organization has recently expanded its traditional role of providing phone patches and sending messages from deployed soldiers to their loved ones to one in which they directly support the Department of Homeland Security by providing emergency communications for DHS and other Federal, State and Local agencies.
In addition to maintaining their FCC-issued Amateur Radio Licenses, MARS volunteers are required to complete a variety of training courses to maintain their association in the program. They use personal radio equipment and are capable of operating on emergency power when conditions dictate.
Many members are former servicemen and women who first learned radio communication skills while serving in the Army.
MARS is a Department of Defense sponsored organization of amateur radio operators trained and equipped to provide emergency communications for military and government agencies when normal links are interrupted by accident, natural calamity or hostile action.