With the help of a small group of volunteers who are licensed amateur radio operators, the Aiken County Department of Emergency Management participated Saturday in a statewide hurricane-related communications exercise organized and coordinated by the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, or SCEMD.
The youngest was 14-year-old Annie Matson, who will be a freshman at Aiken High School when the 2019-2020 school year begins in August.
While attending Schofield Middle School, she was a member of the amateur radio club there.
“I really like helping out,” she said. “I think emergency operations and how everything functions are really cool. I love it. You get to talk to a lot of people.”
She was in the Department of Emergency Management’s communications trailer, which was parked on the grounds of the Aiken County Government Center in Aiken.
“Annie does a great job,” said Paul Matthews, who is the director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management. “At Schofield Middle School, she was really outstanding in the contests that they had as far as the number of contacts made per hour. She could do 90 contacts per hour, which is a really high rate even for someone who is very experienced.”
Matson’s father, Jim Matson, also served as a volunteer Saturday.
“She is the one who dragged me into this,” he said of his involvement in amateur radio. “She started it in school and got me interested in it while I was trying to help her.”
The exercise took place from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The scenario was a hurricane making landfall between Charleston and Hilton Head Island.
“The rules are that the phones, internet and 800-megahertz radios are offline due to infrastructure damage from the winds,” Matthews said. “But we can utilize satellite radio, local government radio and amateur radio. We’re using a generator to power all of the radio equipment in the communications trailer.”
Volunteers also were inside the Government Center, where the Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, and its radio room are located.
During the exercise, the county’s Department of Emergency Management communicated the SCEMD and other counties.
It was important for Aiken County to participate, Matthews said, because “when there is a ‘landfalling’ hurricane impacting the state, our EOC is activated and we shelter people in Aiken County that have left the coast” and the arrangements for them have to be coordinated with the SCEMD and other counties.
“We also could send a radio team, if not needed here, to help to an area that was affected,” Matthews added.
Even though Aiken County isn’t on the coast, a hurricane could create a disaster here.
“We did a tabletop exercise a number of years ago in Beaufort,” Matthews said. “With a strong Category 3 hurricane hitting the Savannah River and then moving up the Savannah River, you would be amazed at the damage we would get. We’re talking about homes being destroyed. We’re talking about facilities being destroyed. And we’re talking about major power and communications outages.”
Counting himself, his assistant Fred Wilhite and the volunteers, Matthews said during the first of hour of the exercise that 11 people were at the Government Center to participate.