Portland-Area Hospital Employees Volunteer to Provide Emergency Communication

04/10/01    Portland, Ore.

Hospital Emergency Amateur Radio Team will test techniques in upcoming earthquake exercise

The recent Seattle earthquake managed to shake up communication lines even in Portland, so imagine what could happen to the local communication system if a quake were centered here. Fortunately, five volunteers from Oregon Health Sciences University have created the Hospital Emergency Amateur Radio Team (HEART), and 50 employees from other metro-area hospitals have jumped on board. HEART will have a chance to test its skills Wednesday, April 11 at the MetroShake '01 community exercise. The drill will test all emergency services in the area.

The primary objective of HEART is to provide backup inter-hospital communication during crisis or disaster using amateur ham radio systems, the only alternative to phone and two-way radio communication. During a mass accident of 10 or more injuries it is the responsibility of the Regional Hospital (RH), located in the OHSU emergency department, to determine which hospitals have available beds and divert on-scene ambulances to those facilities. If RH radios fail, the ham operator at OHSU could transfer the inquiry by ham radio to HEART members stationed at all of the participating area hospitals. The data is passed back to a ham operator at OHSU who relays the message to RH. HEART also can relay information to emergency personnel at the accident.

Michael Brooks, building system technician in OHSU's Facilities Management Department and founder of HEART, said the HEART program is extremely beneficial to the Portland medical community. "There could be complete chaos if the normal radio system went down and there was no backup communication. It could mean the crippling of fire, police, ambulance and other governmental communications in outlying counties," said Brooks.

Ham radio offers benefits that many two-way radios do not. "If there is a problem, hams can find a way to get around it," said Brooks. The ham radio network relies on a repeater, a tower that receives and transmits radio waves. Repeaters have extensive range capabilities and are very reliable during emergencies. If they were to get damaged, ham radios could easily be switched to modes that do not use repeaters. Additionally, most ham radio gear can operate in adverse conditions with very little power, and the equipment is designed to be portable, lightweight and durable. The radios can communicate via voice, data or Morse code.

In comparison, the two-way radio system relies on both a repeater and a complex computer system. The computer system can overload during a mass emergency. In addition, telephone and cell phone lines can overload or fail during disaster, and most two-way radio systems are fixed to a specific spot so their usefulness during a disaster may be in question.

"The equipment is important and so is the ability to operate with a cool head during a disaster. HEART volunteers have trained for emergency situations, and as hospital employees, they are familiar with the hospital setting," said Brooks.

HEART will participate in the MetroShake 2001 Community Exercise, planned by the Portland Metropolitan Hospitals Emergency Preparedness Committee. This exercise will occur on April 11 from 1 to 9 p.m. Other hospital organizations, such as Columbia Region Health Care Engineers, work in coalition with HEART to plan for emergency preparation in the metro area.

If you would like more information about HEART, please visit the group's Web site at http://www.qsl.net/k7esm/heart.htm or contact Michael Brooks, 503 494-8311.