Ham Radio was there!
This article will give you a detailed report of the behind the scenes work
that was done by hundreds of Volunteer Amateur Radio operators during the search
and recovery efforts for the debris of the Columbia tragedy
The Eyes of Texas
I can't think of very many ways to apply the word "fortunate" to the Columbia shuttle disaster in February, 2003. One that comes to mind is that nobody on the ground was killed or injured when debris rained down on east Texas. That's because most of the shuttle fragments fell in rural country, much of it concentrated in Nacogdoches and San Augustine counties, about 150 miles southeast of Dallas, early on a cold Saturday morning. A few hours later, and playgrounds and parking lots would have been a lot busier. A few minutes sooner, and the fragments could have hit near the Dallas/Forth Worth area, with millions more people as potential targets.
But the rural nature of east Texas had a downside in this tragedy, too. The state and federal agencies that poured manpower into the area to find and recover as much of the shuttle as they could, as fast as they could, found that they had little or no communications. They didn't have their own repeaters. Their radios were on different frequencies and different bands, with no common channels. Cell phone coverage was spotty to nonexistent outside of town. So it was also fortunate that the hams of Nacogdoches were trained and ready to lead the army of Amateur Radio operators from Texas and the rest of the country who arrived to do what we often say we can do: provide communications when no one else can.
HAM RADIO CALLED IN EARLY
Rusty Sanders is the Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator for the city of Nacogdoches. He is also Amateur Radio Operator KD5GEN. He had been interested in ham radio since he was 13 years old, but finally got licensed just a few years ago, after working with area hams in SKYWARN and emergency communications. The Nacogdoches hams have taken emergency communications seriously. Of their 50-member club, 30 routinely participate in drills and activations. Many have trained to be net control operators. They have established good relationships with city and county officials. They were as ready for this as hams could be.
One of the first things Rusty did that Saturday morning was bring Army Curtis, AE5P, into the EOC. They weren't sure what role Amateur Radio would take in the developing emergency, but they wanted to be ready. Local hams immediately queued up on the Nacogdoches repeater to volunteer for whatever they might be needed to do.
Their first assignment was to pair up with students and staff from Steven F. Austin State University, and locate debris. The school has programs in Geographic Information Systems and mapping, and their teams were equipped with GPS receivers that were accurate to less than a meter (consumer GPS systems are good to about 90 feet). The hams reported the location to the command post at the EOC, and police were dispatched to cordon off the fragments.
Over the next two days, the operation began shifting from identification to collection. An alphabet soup of agencies arrived - NASA, FBI, ATF, DOD, NTSB, and more that Curtis said he'd never heard of. The state of Texas sent DPS (state police) officers from across the state. Police and fire crews volunteered. And that's when the communications problems surfaced.
The DPS officers should have had area-wide communications with their own VHF repeater. But something wasn't working. Cars from one part of the state couldn't communicate with cars from another part of the state. Nobody learned exactly what the problem was, but the hams speculated that they were programmed with different CTCSS tones.
All the agencies, including the hams, began participating in daily briefings. When the DPS liaison announced their radio problem, Incident Commander Robert Hurst pointed them to Curtis, who arranged to have hams accompany the DPS teams. The DPS officers accepted the assistance gratefully, and most teams asked to have a ham. Hams were also assigned to accompany city police officers as they retrieved debris. The city police did have their own radios, but no way to talk directly to the communications center that was set up in the Nacogdoches Expo Center.
To recover shuttle fragments that fell in the city, the police worked from a log of debris that had been identified earlier by the college teams. Frequently, a piece wasn't where it was supposed to be, or there was more debris than had been logged. The hams would radio for instructions. Usually they would log the location of extra debris and collect the items (the hams were now using their own GPS units that had been checked for accuracy, and many had laptop computers with mapping programs). If something was totally missing, the team would log and report it. Sometimes another recovery team would have beaten them to the item.
By mid-week, the operation was expanding quickly. Lots more people, many more agencies, and much wider territory. Hams were part of the expansion. Volunteers came from all over Texas, particularly Dallas and Houston, and from across the country, as far as California and New York. The North Texas ARRL Section web page listed requirements: "What we now find we need are people who can walk through the forest, all day. In other words, we need hunter types." Outside of town, Nacogdoches and San Augustine counties are rolling hills covered with thick pine forest, with few roads. It was cold, and raining a lot, as the search for debris pushed deeper into the woods. The hams also needed to be self contained - their own radios, their own food, water and bedding. Most of the hams who responded were incredibly well equipped, and in shape enough for the physically demanding duty. This doesn't exactly sound like the "average" ham to me, but that's who volunteered. There were administrative jobs available for hams who couldn't handle the physical stuff so well. Only a few arrived with the legendary handy-talky and half-dead battery. Very few arrived from the "yahoo" set.
Out in the country, the radio problems got worse. In the thick pine forest, the FBI's satellite phones didn't work. Cell phones didn't work. Even the county Sheriff had gaps in coverage, and not enough radios and personnel to go around. Everyone depended on the hams to provide communications. 20 miles from town, the ham mobiles could hit the Nacogdoches repeaters, but mobiles couldn't go where communications were needed now. And handhelds couldn't reach the repeaters.
THE NACOGDOCHES REPEATERS
Nacogdoches County does not have any wide-area amateur repeaters. The nearest 1000-foot repeater is 90 miles away, in Shreveport, Louisiana. Nacogdoches itself has three ham repeaters - two on two-meters and one on UHF. The "workhorse" repeater for shuttle recovery communications was the NARC machine on 147.32 MHz. It is a converted Motorola Micor mobile, running 65 watts through a TX-RX 4 can duplexer to a DB-224 antenna on top of the county tower at 270' AGL. It has battery backup, and generator power supplied by the county. A CAT-1000 controller gives it lots of programming flexibility, though for this event all the bells and whistles were turned off to keep the repeater quiet. The second repeater, on 146.84 MHz, is an older converted Micor. It was the original club repeater, built about 15 years ago. Its DB-224 antenna sits on top of the county Medical Center at about 150 feet. (If these frequencies sound odd to you, keep in mind that Texas, and much of the western US, uses a 20 kHz channel-step band plan for the whole two-meter band. East of the Mississippi, every state except Michigan and Alabama uses 15 kHz channel steps above 146 MHz, and 20 kHz steps below.)
The UHF repeater was not used for the shuttle recovery operation. The two VHF repeaters were able to handle the communications load.
At 270 feet, the 147.32 machine provided good mobile coverage throughout the county. But even four-wheel-drive couldn't take you far into this forest. Teams used machetes to cut their way through the brush, and handheld radios were all they could bring with them - handhelds that couldn't penetrate the forest and reach the repeater. So a relay system was improvised. Some of those well-equipped mobiles were placed in strategic locations on the road near the forest to be searched. They had several radios, and two or more operators. They used simplex to talk to the search team's handheld radios, and relayed information back to the command center using ... a cell phone.
A cell phone? Not the repeater? That's right. By this time, the media were savvy to the communications scheme, and were monitoring the ham repeaters for tips on the location of debris. Some of the debris items were sensitive, such as human remains. Some were security concerns and classified items. So the search teams and the hams communicating for them used several techniques to avoid actually giving locations over the repeater. When a team identified an item in the field, they notified the relay mobile, using just a "category number" to identify the item. The mobile relay ham called the communications center on the repeater and reported the team and category number. They were then given a telephone number to call on the cell phone. That phone number connected the relay ham to the agency designated to recover that category item.
Security was the reason the hams didn't use crossband repeat to link the handhelds to the repeater. The short range and less common frequencies of the handhelds provided some extra protection for sensitive communications. Listening on Echolink, I could tell that actual recovery traffic on the repeater was somewhat minimal.
A REPEATER FOR SAN AUGUSTINE
San Augustine County, just southeast of Nacogdoches County, also received considerable debris, and was a big part of the search effort. The teams there had the same communications problems, but fewer ham resources. The one repeater in the county was deaf due to a bad preamp. Hams from the Garland ARC (suburban Dallas) quickly responded by bringing a portable repeater on 146.66 MHz. Kevin Anderson, KD5CCH, in Nacogdoches, arranged for a tower crew to climb a county tower in San Augustine and hang an antenna. The portable repeater worked fine, and provided the bulk of the San Augustine communications, even after the local repeater was repaired.
The Nacogdoches and San Augustine repeaters could be linked through a remote base on the Nacogdoches machine, but that was rarely employed. The two areas ran separate nets with separate command posts. They could reach each other's repeaters directly if they needed to pass traffic.
LOGISTICS AND ASSIGNMENTS
Jeff Clark K5NAC ran net control from his house for the first few days, putting in long hours. And while net control didn't need to be in the thick of the action at the Expo Center, Jeff realized that it would be convenient to have their operation at least nearby. He arranged the loan of an RV from his employer, Fore Travel. The RV was set up in the Expo Center parking lot, away from other activity, and became the hub of ham operations. Volunteer net control operators filled in to give Jeff a break.
Kevin Anderson, KD5CCH, was responsible for coordinating Amateur Radio staffing, though he had a lot of help, both in Nacogdoches and in Dallas, where many of the volunteers came from. Anderson said that it was mostly luck that they had just the right number of volunteers each day. His day started at about 4:30 AM, when the ham leaders would gather at the command post and review available resources. Then he would attend the morning briefing and learn what the assignments would be. The hams were treated just like all the other agencies, and nobody knew in advance what the next day would bring.
Meanwhile, hams arriving for work would check in on the 146.84 repeater and await their assignments at the staging area. Once assigned, they checked in with Net Control on 147.32 and headed into the field. At the beginning of each day, several large "super-teams" formed. These teams would then split up in the field into four or five smaller teams. There was a lot of reassignment "on the fly." Everyone had to be very adaptable. Hams coming from out of town were warned that if they arrived after the initial assignments were given out, there would probably be no work for them that day. But hams were encouraged to come to town the afternoon before their first assignment to get settled and observe how the operation was handled.
The end of the day brought more briefings. Then, Kevin would be up until 2 AM answering e-mail from hams across the country who wanted to volunteer. He said about 300 hams were actually used, and twice that number would have showed up if asked.
THE WHOLE WORLD LISTENED
A couple years ago, Anderson and his SKYWARN hams in Nacogdoches began experimenting with Echolink and its predecessor, I-Link. These are Internet-based systems for linking hams and repeaters worldwide. They established a "conference server" named WX_TALK that allowed hams interested in SKYWARN to get together and chat on-line, and pass weather information during storms. Early in the shuttle recovery operation, Kevin connected the 147.32 repeater to the Echolink WX_TALK conference to allow hams in Dallas to monitor the net activity. Many of the volunteers came from Dallas, and the link was useful in coordinating volunteers, and giving them an advance idea of what the net sounded like before they arrived.
As word of the operation spread, hams around the world logged onto WX_TALK to listen. The Nacogdoches hams were happy to have an audience, but concerned about possible accidental interference from people keying up via their Echolink connection, and they worried about running out of bandwidth on the server. Two other conference servers (N2LEN and EDU_NET) set up to provide "listen-only" coverage. 100 or more hams remained logged on and listening each day. The "text chat" box on the Echolink screen stayed busy with comments on the activity. Mark Widerstrom, N5UOA, policed the conferences, asking hams who showed up on WX_TALK to please move to one of the other servers to listen. I only heard one ham complain about being asked to move.
The "listen-only" conferences turned out to be a good idea. One repeater that was linked in to broadcast the activity into Mississippi suffered a technical failure, and ended up "jamming" one of the listening conference servers for the better part of a day. But since that signal was not relayed back to the WX_TALK conference, the east Texas operations were not disturbed. The Echolink listeners moved to the other listen-only server until the offending repeater was shut off. The repeater owner profusely apologized.
The recovery effort ran twelve days. Then, abruptly, several thousand US Forest Service employees arrived to take over the search, bringing their own communications with them. The hams and other volunteers went home. It was a remarkable twelve days, a unique experience. Of course, ham radio has provided vital communications many times before, and we will many times in the future. But I can't think of another time where hams provided the only link for so many agencies in the same place, at the same time, with such clear and widespread recognition of our role. Tim Lewallen, KD4ING, the Nacogdoches Amateur Radio Club Public Information Officer, reported this comment from Nacogdoches County Sheriff and Incident Commander Thomas Kerss at one of the daily briefings, "I don't know why they call them amateurs ... they are performing like true professionals." That sentiment was echoed many times by people in each agency. The Amateurs were treated as equal partners in the operation, and on each team.
An awful lot of hams deserve credit for this operation, as leaders and participants. I've only mentioned a few, and I've concentrated on the activity in Nacogdoches. Hams assisted elsewhere in Texas and west to California in a mostly futile search for fragments that might have fallen earlier. Their efforts were just as valuable.
And this being the FM and
repeaters column, maybe I should mention that no HF communications were
needed. This was a job for the utility mode.
"Hundreds of volunteer Amateur
(Ham) Radio Operators from all over the U.S were involved in the
ground search effort for the remains of STS-107, they endured extreme
hardship during the tragedy in February, 2003 also serving
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