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After the Earthquake, UM's New Ham Radio Station is a Lifeline in Haiti

2/15/2010

Haiti Photos

Like so many post-quake emergencies, this one was urgent. Doctors at the University of Miami's hospital in Haiti knew a 13-year-old survivor of the January 12 cataclysm would not live without surgery. But they were not equipped to perform it.

With cell phone and satellite phone coverage spotty, and land lines destroyed, neither could the doctors summon an ambulance nor call other makeshift hospitals to search for one that could help the teen-aged girl.

Fortunately, they had the world's first, and still most reliable, wireless technology just 25 yards outside the hospital's pediatrics tent - the impromptu ham radio station Ronald Bogue, assistant vice president for facilities and services, and UM alumnus Julio Ripoll established to ensure uninterrupted communications between the hospital at the edge of the Port-au-Prince airport and the Global Institute/Project Medishare's Haiti Relief Task Force on the Miller School campus.

Bogue never dreamed, though, that Haiti's WX4NHC, an offshoot of the ham station Ripoll founded at the National Hurricane Center as an architecture student 30 years ago, would evolve into a vital lifeline that has saved countless lives.

Since WX4NHC volunteers in Haiti began broadcasting on January 31, they have coordinated dozens of patient transfers to the U.S. Navy's hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, connected doctors at remote clinics with University specialists for emergency consults, conveyed landing coordinates for helicopter pilots conducting medical evacuations and rounded up urgently needed supplies and equipment – including an incubator for a premature baby, and food for children living in an orphanage on an isolated island off the Haitian coast.

"It's gone beyond our wildest expectations," Bogue said. "It's awesome. I had no idea it would morph into what it has become."

Indeed, the Haiti station proved its worth on February 3 when, just 30 minutes after two doctors at the University's tent hospital asked ham radio operator Jack Satterfield for help, the 13-year-old girl was aboard one of the Comfort's speed boats, racing for the vessel and the surgery that would save her life.

"We contacted the Comfort for authorization to transport," Satterfield wrote in a situation report detailing WX4NHC's role. "The Comfort sent a Fast Boat to the port. We got the girl to the port in less than 30 minutes. The doctor said she would have died if this didn't happen. Not sure what else I can say."

Satterfield, a Military Auxiliary Radio System, or MARS, operator and charter boat captain from Pinellas County, and Louis Cruz, an IT specialist with the federal government who volunteers at the hurricane center's ham radio station in West Miami-Dade County, were the first operators to deploy to Haiti. They set up 300 pounds of equipment, half of it donated by the American Radio Relay League, in less than two days. Then Cruz modified a VHF radio to access marine frequencies, giving the station a direct link to the Comfort and instantly expanding its mission.

"The primary goal was to provide back-up communications for the University in case the satellite link went down," said Ripoll, who earned his architecture degree from UM in 1981. "But it has evolved into the coordinator of communications between the military, medical and non-governmental relief missions."

A designer of medical labs and clinics, Ripoll has worked with Bogue on numerous Miller School projects over the years, so Bogue knew of Ripoll's ham radio hobby, and wasted no time in soliciting his help.

"Julio immediately took the ball and ran with it," Bogue said.

For Ripoll, and for the two-man teams of volunteer radio operators who are rotating into a disaster zone on their vacations, at their own expense, and without insurance, the rewards outweigh the sacrifices.

As Satterfield wrote in an update about the 13-year-old girl: "She is stable and doing well ... Makes it all worthwhile."