Scores of international students at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez Campus (UPRM) had no way of letting their families know that they were alive well after Hurricane María tore down most of the telecommunications infrastructure, creating a near total communications blackout in Puerto Rico.
Then hope emerged. A licensed radio amateur (Ham radio) operator showed up at the Seismic Network offices and began relaying information on what had happened on the island and the status of the international students. “Within two hours, he had been able to establish communication with the families,” recalled Dr. Víctor Huérfano, Director of the Seismic Network and a professor at the University.
It was an epiphany that encouraged a group of professors at the Mayaguez Campus, led by Dr. Sandra Cruz Pol, to set up a network for Emergency Communications to aid in disaster management and relief. They began to research the benefits of Ham radios, how they work, what is required for them and then they crafted a proposal for Unidos por Puerto Rico (United for Puerto Rico), the disaster relief nonprofit organization set up to fund aid for relief and recovery efforts after Hurricanes Irma and María devastated Puerto Rico in September of 2017.
Their proposal called for the Establishment of an Emergency Communications System at UPRM or ECOMM. The group requested $72,425.00 to purchase 50 portable Ham radios, train and certify 50 volunteers to set up three communication hubs at the University with redundancy in emergency power systems. The main one would be at the Seismic Network which has three levels of redundancy permitting the center to operate with no service interruptions through the 2017 hurricanes and during their aftermath. An alternate center would be at the University’s Research and Development Center and a third one to be set up on the Magueyes Isle, where the Marine Science Department has facilities. The proposed communications disaster network will also have a relay station to extend the radio signal.
“The proposal to set up an Emergency Communications Network at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus filled a need for a more robust communications network in the face of future disasters,” said Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of Unidos por Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria, 95% of the telecommunication cell towers were down, as well as Internet services, and most TV and radio station towers.
Dr. Huérfano explained that the University called for volunteers in the community to become Ham radio operators. Initially, 80 people from all walks of life showed up. The professor said that all they required from the volunteers was a willingness to help and a commitment to follow through to be certified as Ham radio operators. The volunteers, who include emergency directors from different municipalities, students, retirees and regular citizens, now number 50. In order to obtain their first license to operate, they have had to take an eight-week course and will need to pass an exam in February. Dr. Huérfano explained that they expect to distribute the radios to the new operators in March of 2019.
Dr. Huérfano said that the idea of setting up the network is not only to connect families with loved ones but to inform on conditions and support the channeling of aid to where it is needed. Because the radios are portable, the volunteers could move to areas of need and report on conditions as long as they can set up a signal.
For more information on the emerging emergency network, you may visit the following site:https://sites.google.com/upr.edu/comunicaciones-emergencia/fotos-videos
For information on Unidos por Puerto Rico, visit unidosporpuertorico.com.