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Ham operators to the rescue

The collision of two small planes over the Mississippi River near Grey Cloud Island on Sept. 19 didn't actually happen, but an estimated 90 volunteers spent the morning acting as if it did.

"We've run simulated emergency exercises before, but this was the first time we had so many people involved," said Woodbury resident John Regan, Washington County coordinator of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services.

Regan and Tom Polzin, director of Dakota County Emergency Communications amateur radio group, were responsible for overall coordination of the drill.

The two groups organized the joint drill for area amateur radio operators in order to "develop and maintain communication skills" and to determine the level of "interoperability" between amateur ham operators and public service agencies.

Volunteers included pilots and ground crews of the Civil Air Patrol, search and rescue teams from the U.S. Coast Guard and Auxiliary and Inver Hills Community College EMS trainees.

Ham operators from Hastings, South St. Paul, Woodbury, Inver Grove Heights and Minneapolis took part as well as members of the SouthEast Amateur Radio Club in Cottage Grove and the Stillwater Amateur Radio Association.

"We also had members of the Citizens Emergency Response Team from the Shakopee area ask to participate," Regan said. "All these organizations need continual practice to maintain their skills."

Working scenario

Similar teams worked on both sides of the river, Regan said, because the drill scenario indicated there were airplane parts and victims on both sides of the river.

Regan said the detailed scenario written for the exercise described the collision of two small planes over the river the previous evening, a 911 report, law enforcement agencies calling airports and homes trying to locate planes and passengers, organizing search and rescue teams, setting up command posts on both sides of the river and finally organizing a unified command connecting the entire search and rescue.

"For purposes of the exercise, we assumed that two higher levels of communications, including the new 800 MHz system, were not operating," Regan said.

Ham operators are called once the search grows to a certain size because it's necessary to coordinate all the rescue parties, he said. "Once a victim was found and was able to tell searchers how many other passengers were on the planes, the information was called in and passed on to all rescue teams so the ongoing search becomes more effective."

To make it even more realistic, the pilot of one plane was found in bad condition and a helicopter was called in. Four ambulances were available; two for victims and two for exercise participants.

"At one point we thought were looking for a child named Mikey, but discovered it was a dog -- which did survive," Regan said.

"The ham operators were able to provide communications with all agencies regardless of frequency or location," Regan said. "Procedures that were in place worked well and the interoperability of all groups was strengthened."

He said communication procedures will continue to be refined and developed based on what was learned during the drill.

"The Sept. 19 drill did highlight for us the importance of developing relationships with other amateur groups and public agencies for whom we may have to provide communications in the event of an actual emergency," Regan said.

-- James Boyd contributed to this article.