Joining SATERN's rings

Joining SATERN's rings

by Ann Shaver WH2E

"SATERN differs from all other radio organizations because of the group you're helping," Mike Duce, N9IWZ, explained enthusiastically.

"The Salvation Army is involved in such a wide variety of things. In my experience it makes the heaviest use of amateur radio operators," Pat Duce, WZ9H, continued. "And I think there is a closer relationship between the served agencies and SATERN members."

SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network) provides emergency communication support to the Salvation Army wherever needed. And what a mind-boggling range of situations SATERN members have found themselves in tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, fires, aircraft accidents, bombings, earthquakes -- just to name the more expected types of emergencies. SATERN volunteers have also helped quell urban violence, reduce the chaos of a Christmas party for thousands of inner-city kids, feed street people during winter freezes, and direct parking-lot traffic at major events.

SATERN volunteers establish health-and-welfare nets, pass messages between field workers and their respective command posts, string up dipoles and operate from emergency generators. They also have been known to unload trucks of ice, deliver a motorized canteen to earthquake-ravished Kobe, check on the welfare of vulnerable elderly in a mega heat wave, and prepare sandwiches and hot coffee for firefighters battling an extra-alarm blaze in below-zero weather. In short, SATERN is not your ordinary radio club!

"Because I was a ham, I immediately saw the role of communications support in disaster services," said Major Patrick McPherson, WW9E, Director of Emergency Disaster Services for the Chicago Metropolitan District of the Salvation Army and one of the founders of SATERN. "But as important as communications are, that isn't the whole story. Every SATERN member has other skills to offer in an emergency. They come to us because of their interest in helping others, not because they narrowly want to help us communicate. So we use their help to the fullest extent possible."

"With SATERN, I have the opportunity to be out there doing something," Mike Duce elaborated. "Sure I'm available all the time to communicate. In the meantime, I might be giving a drink of water to someone who is dehydrated."


Given the worldwide scope of the Salvation Army, it is not surprising that there are SATERN links to the United Nations, Australia, Canada, and Russia and established SATERN groups in more than 16 states. As would be expected, SATERN volunteers have offered their skills in places far from home.

When the January 1995 earthquake left thousands of people homeless in Kobe, Japan, The Salvation Army immediately began prepararing to airlift a mobile canteen--a mobile home completely equipped for the preparation and distribution of hot and cold meals to Japan. Major McPherson deemed SATERN volunteer Bill Shillington, W9ZCL, the ideal person to accompany the canteen and demonstrate its use to Japanese Salvation Army personnel. Shillington was the Metropolitan District's Motor Vehicle Officer, in charge of fitting out and maintaining the canteens and other emergency-response vehicles both to fulfill their primary purposes and to serve as communications platforms. Moreover, Shillington was employed by a Japanese-owned firm that was delighted to give him time off for this worthwhile volunteer project. Indeed, it even helped arrange support once Shillington and the canteen arrived in Japan. As Major McPherson has noted, people with a range of skills to offer come to The Salvation Army through amateur radio!

Hurricane Marilyn, which struck the Virgin Islands in July 1995, provided another opportunity for SATERN volunteers to travel where they were needed most. At Major McPherson's request, Bob Hancock, KB5IDB, assembled a team to fly to the Virgin Islands to handle The Salvation Army's backlog of outgoing health-and-welfare traffic. Bill Thomas, AA5YZ, Ray Parker, K5LJC, and Dennis Schaefer, W5RZ, joined Hancock in the proverbial mission of mercy to St. Thomas and St. Croix. After landing, their first order of business was to establish communications with Salvation Army stalwart Quent Nelson,WA4BZY, near Atlanta, Georgia. In a familiar role, Quent acted as their link to the rest of the world.

While there, the amateurs handled traffic for various govermental and private agencies as well as for The Salvation Army. In addition, they got a generator going on St. Croix to provide power for The Salvation Army in the immediate aftermath as well as helped other volunteers clear debris. After four days, when commercial power and telephone service had been restored in some areas, the team headed home.

"As we were boarding the plane," reminisced Hancock, "the pilot noticed our ID badges and asked what we had been doing. When we explained, he said, 'Oh, I heard about you guys on CNN.' Once in the air, he made an announcement that we had some 'special guests on board, hams who helped with communications on St. Croix and St. Thomas.'

"I believe all four of us had tears in our eyes. A couple of people came up to us during the flight and thanked us and The Salvation Army for our help. Actually, we did very little compared to the hundreds of men and women that were still there with the many different agencies."


No community is immune from mishaps, and most SATERN activations take place in the volunteers' own area. Some, like the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 are dramatic. Within 15 minutes of the explosion, John Zilavy, KC5DRI, a SATERN volunteer, was at Salvation Army Territorial Headquarters and had opened the emergency net which eventually lasted 363 hours. Although the operation was officially considered an ARES function, the core of the volunteer communicators were trained SATERN members. This made it relatively easy to add additional volunteers, who came from all over the region to help, without greatly impeding the efficiency of the operation.

"Our job is to be ready," Frank McCollom, N5FM, Oklahoma SATERN coordinator stated emphatically. "We've always known someday we will be needed. With this in mind, we have monthly HF traning nets, local VHF nets, and check in regularly over AMTOR and packet with Quent Nelson over in Atlanta. On the nets we emphasize using standardized, quality equipment and good operating procedures.

"Our readiness paid off."

Salvation Army Officers were impressed by the professional quality of communications provided by their so-called amateur shadows. "On the scene in Oklahoma City, Tim Diehl, KB5ZVC, handled all of my communications, reminded me of appointments, kept me from getting lost, etc." reported Jon R. Wallace, Director of Social Services for The Salvation Army in Tulsa. "More than once I had representatives of other disaster relief agencies, including FEMA, comment on how well organized we were and how impressive our communication abilities were. This wouldn't have been the case if I hadn't had an amateur radio volunteer to support me."

Indeed, Wallace was so impressed with the value of amateur radio that he now has his own license and is known in some circles as KC5OEB.


Almost exactly a year later, Mac McDonald, AB5SG and other Oklahoma City SATERN veterans were thinking about holding a training simulation when monster tornadoes struck the Fort Smith, Arkansas, area. "My wife, Betty, and I reported immediately to the police command post. They instructed us to open a shelter at the nearby Junior High School," McDonald related.

"Jim Weaver, KC5AAY, had difficulty getting to Salvation Army Headquarters. They were without phone or electricity there--a situation which lasted two weeks. But Jim had no trouble establishing a command post and net there because just two weeks earlier we had installed heavy-duty batteries in the radio room there for this very purpose."

In typical SATERN fashion, volunteers pitched in wherever help was needed and did not strictly confine themselves to communication services. Many hams had pick-up trucks fitted with 2-meter equipment. These were particularly useful for delivering supplies, transporting equipment, and other logistical efforts.

Indeed unlike many public-service radio groups which emphasize that communicators are not to undertake other tasks, SATERN personnel believe that their communication skills give them the flexibility and mobility to do more. "Communications allows one to cover more territory," argues Shillington, the Chicago Motor Vehicle Officer. "With our radios, we are not tied down to a particular position. For instance, Dee (WB9WVY, his XYL) is a professional food-service manager who serves as a canteen volunteer. She can use her own radio skills to be directed where she is needed most. She doesn't need a shadow (a communicator assigned specifically to her)."


Earthquakes, hurricanes, bombings, and tornadoes are certainly dramatic events. SATERN, of course, does not overlook the myriad of smaller-scale calamities that befall communities. For instance the Minot, North Dakota, SATERN group--like many others--is closely tied in with the local RACES organization. Bill Feist, WB8BZH, in fact, serves as coordinator of both organizations. Amateurs are regularly activated to provide communications for canteens and shelters following house fires, grain-elevator fires, train derailments, and the like. Reading Feist's reports, in fact, makes life in the Minot area seem hazardous indeed!

Detroit, Michigan, Halloween night, is certainly a hazardous place. Or at least it was until this past year, when a group of volunteers convened by the Mayor's Office of Emergency Managment developed a strategy to counter the rampant arson that had become a local Halloween ritual. When Mayor Archer asked for an "army of angels" to protect the city, it was only natural for Captain Bill Heaver, KB8QHP, and The Salvation Army to respond.

Heaver agreed that The Army's canteens should be placed in stategic locations around the city to provide beverages, nourishment and encouragement to emergency personnel. Effective, reliable communications, naturally, would be essential. Aware that the cellular system would be overloaded during the Devil's Night mayhem and would quickly become useless, Heaver and Walt Gracey, WB8E, equipped all the canteens and support vehicles with 2-meter radios--and SATERN volunteers to operate them. City officials were impressed by the service rendered by the "amateur" volunteers.

When a veteran Detroit Police Sergeant approached SATERN volunteer Dan Larned, KA8NDY, and expressed gratitude for "all you Sally Ann people do," Larned enthusiastically remarked "This encounter made all the long hours worth it." It is precisely this sense of doing something meaningful that makes SATERN so important to many radio amateurs.

Perhaps only a little less chaotic is a Christmas party for 3,000 underprivileged Chicago kids. Every year Chicago SATERN volunteers actually take time off from their regular jobs to be part of this activity. "Basically what you're doing is getting the kids off 60 buses, herding them inside to see Santa and get their presents, and then get them back on the right buses to go home," explained Mike Duce nonchalantly. Easier said than done. But with good communication skills and the smooth working relationship that comes from repeated practice, "We were down to only 9 lost kids last year," laughed Pat Duce.

In June 1995, SATERN personnel were involved in every phase of the General's Congress Field Day, a large Salvation Army convocation in Indiana involving an estimated 4,000 people, over half of whom were children. SATERN volunteers helped with traffic control, crowd control, emergency communications, canteen communications, and logistics. Pat Duce served as Net Control Station, a function she routinely and admirably fulfills in large-scale disasters such as the Plainfield Tornado in 1990. The General's Congress was not a disaster, only pandemonium.

Al Shaver, NH2Z, found serving as a canteen communicator was more complicated than he had anticipated. "What an experience it was trying to handle three very different messages at once while the canteen was serving lunch at 'full tilt.' There was a Boy Scout Troop needing water immediately, the Jesse White Tumbling Team had just finished its performance and its members wanted their lunches, and no one could find the key to unlock the door for the General. I can only imagine how hectic an emergency must be."

Interestingly, one of the activities of SATERN volunteers is to help Salvation Army personnel understand how communication support can make their work easier and more effective. "The founding goal of SATERN was both to develop a reservoir of amateurs to assist The Salvation Army and to make the Army aware of this valuable resource," explained Major McPherson.

"Just as we train amateurs to work with The Salvation Army, we also must train Salvation Army personnel to work with amateurs," Pat Duce elaborated. "The Officer needs to be in six places at once, communicating with a dozen different people.

"Many of them think having a cellular phone is all they need. You and I know that isn't the case." So do the people in Detroit who marveled at SATERN's abilities. Indeed Salvation Army personnel--and all emergency responders--are increasingly aware of the limitations of cellular communications in the early stages of any calamity.


Despite its unique mission--to provide communications support for The Salvation Army--SATERN is in many respects like many other radio groups. There are formal nets--HF, VHF, and digital. Net skills are particularly important for SATERN members. VHF Net discipline is essential to coordinate on-site activities. On the HF side, SATERN typically opens a net following any kind of disaster to handle health-and-welfare traffic. "We were busy for several days following Hurricane Andrew," remembered Mike Duce. "We set up a net following the crash of USAir Flight #427 but we closed it almost immediately because there were no survivors. I wish there had been something to do.

The nets serve as training sessions, as a means for members across the globe to keep in touch with each other, and as a way for people in the field to get reports back to headquarters immediately. In October 1994, SATERN volunteer Jerry Jennison, N5OKQ, went to Houston in his capacity as Texas VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Assisting in Disasters) chairman, during an episode of flooding. Jennison checked into the daily SATERN 20-meter net and reported on numbers served by The Salvation Army as well as the status of the flood conditions.

"It was great to be able to get such timely information," remarked Major McPherson in Chicago.

A weekly packet net--accessible through the Internet as well as local 2-meter packet gateways--allows participants to sharpen their digital skills. McCollom in Oklahoma City observed that the potential of packet often is not realized in emergencies because of the many different software packages and hardware configurations in existence. Participants in this net try to simplify operations as well as get better acquainted with far-flung members: regular participants in the net include SATERN volunteers from Moscow and Ontario as well as throughout the United States.

Local training nets reflect local interests and local needs. Like the Oklahoma City bunch, the Phoenix, Arizona, SATERN group emphasizes AMTOR and packet. Warren Andreasen, N6WA, maintains a full-service packet BBS and an APLINK.(UPLINK?) He also has developed a SATERN site on the World Wide Web; Harry Gilling, W9IB, also offers a SATERN homepage. Both are useful for attracting new members as well publicizing current activities.

Like hams everywhere, SATERN volunteers get hands-on experience with simulated emergency conditions through participating in Field Day. Some groups, like the Mount Clemens, Michigan, gang, run a large operation--16 different operating positions. Others, such as the fledgling Hawaii contingent, join forces with established groups, in this case Army MARS for a regular celestial confluence. In Chicago, the SATERN folks use Field Day not only as an opportunity to test their operating skills but also as a chance to practice canteen operations; the various mobile canteens arrive at the Field-Day site, are inspected by Motor Vehicle Officer Shillington and then offer their famous taste treats to radio operators madly making contacts. In Arizona, Field Day participants typically have to contend with extreme heat. Whatever the conditions, SATERN members use Field Day to hone their skills and to call attention to their program.

The annual Disaster Services Seminar held at The Salvation Army's Camp Wonderland, near Kenosha, Wisconsin, provides a chance to discuss operating techniques, equipment, philosophy of service and related topics. On occasion SATERN volunteers serve at particularly grusome scenes such as the crash near Pittsburgh of USAir Flight #427, the Indiana crash of American Eagle flight #4184, or in the Uptown area of Chicago last summer when hundreds of frail elderly died from the excessive heat. To prepare members for these kinds of experiences, other sessions deal with bio-hazards,health precautions, sanitation, critical-incident stress debriefing and pastoral counseling.

Two other highlights of the Camp Wonderland seminar are a Special-Event Station, which gives operators a chance to practice working pile-ups, and food--lots of food--which gives canteen personnel a chance to perfect their talents. It is well known among disaster responders that a Salvation Army assignment means plenty of tasty chow. Clearly, SATERN is more than just another radio club. It is a far flung, diverse group of individuals who care deeply about their fellow human beings and want to use their communication skills and other abilities to alleviate human suffering. Probably all would agree with Mike Duce's assessment, "Our primary responsibility is to pass information back and forth--but you can also be doing something."

"SATERN gives you the feeling of being able to contribute in a lot of ways," Pat Duce added.


Reprinted by permission of Worldradio. See October 1996 issue of Worldradio for article with pictures.