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Radio hams put passion to work for public safety communication in disasters
Some of the equipment Rockdale’s Amateur Radio Emergency Service group uses to talk to networks of amateur radio enthusiasts around the world. - photo by Candace Wheeler

Starting last month, there is a new partnership between Rockdale County and the local chapter of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service.

ARES is a volunteer organization that works with local police, fire and rescue to relay vital messages in the event of an emergency.

Amateur radio operators can be traced back to World War II when they sent messages from the frontlines of battle.  Present day ARES groups have been involved in rescue efforts during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as well as the Boston Marathon bombings. 

The Rockdale ARES organization has had a long standing relationship with the county, but over the last several years the group has not been directly involved with emergency planning.

Rockdale Fire Chief Dan Morgan, who is also the emergency management director for the county, said he’s looking to change that.

“Under this new agreement we’re looking to bring the local ARES group into what we’re doing here at the fire department as well as with the sheriff’s department and the hospital,” said Morgan. “That way when there is an emergency we don’t have to try to put a plan together we will already have one in place.”

Over the next few months Chief Morgan will be working closely with Jeff Cawley, the Emergency Coordinator for Rockdale ARES, to set up outposts for the group at the 911 call center, hospital and police and fire departments.

This includes purchasing new equipment such as antennas and radios for the 911 center, which Chief Morgan says is part of his proposed budget for 2014. 

Even though their name includes the word amateur, what ARES volunteers do is pretty sophisticated.

Using little more than a portable radio, amateur operators can send messages as far as England or Australia.

During an emergency event that would make traditional communication difficult, these devices can transmit information about needs for medical supplies, establish contact with other emergency personnel or help to reunite families. 

Many ARES members got their start by working on radios or old television sets as a hobby. Despite being a volunteer organization, ARES does require that its members receive formal training and they must hold a federal FCC license to operate.

The Rockdale ARES group currently has six members who came together in the spring of this year. Since then they’ve hosted several meetings as well as attended a training exercise with 30 other emergency management teams from across the state at Stone Mountain Park. 

On Oct. 5 Rockdale ARES will be having a Simulated Emergency Training to test out some of their new equipment and run drills on the county’s mobile command vehicle.

Cawley says anyone interested in joining ARES should stop by or attend their monthly meeting held every second Thursday of the month., 7:30 p.m., at Rockdale Fire Station No. 8, 1164 Scott Street SE, Conyers.   

 “We’re always looking for new and old hams,” said Cawley.  

For now both Cawley and Chief Morgan said they look forward to getting to work. 

“I hope we never have to use them and it’s something that most people in the community will never even know about until we need it, but I’m glad they’re here,” said Chief Morgan.

For more information, contact Cawley at or stop by the next ARES meeting, Oct. 10, 7:30 p.m.1164 Scott Street SE, Conyers.