In an air-conditioned room on the roof of Aiken Regional Medical Centers, Kent Hufford started his morning chatting with a stranger in England.

"You can talk to Moscow on your cellphone," Hufford said. "With Ham radio you can talk to Moscow and you won't even know who's there. Hams will just talk to each other."

Hufford serves as the lead for a volunteer Radio Response Team that operates out of Aiken Regional Medical Centers. His team provides emergency backup communications within and between health care facilities across South Carolina and the CSRA.

Amateur radio, commonly referred to as Ham radio, is an off-the-grid method of personal communication. There are no minutes, bills, or data plans like with a cellphone, and it can be used to communicate with people across the state and all over the world.

"Almost every hospital in South Carolina has a Ham radio team on it, and in emergencies and disasters we tie all the hospitals together," Hufford said.

On Thursday morning, Hufford and another volunteer, David Kjellquist, were linking up with healthcare radio teams all over the state. This system, called SCHEART, is a network of statewide radio teams that is controlled from the rooftop radio center at Aiken Regional. 

"Everybody hears us," Kjellquist said. "When we talk, the whole state lights up."

It is also an indispensable resource during emergencies and natural disasters.

"If the coast gets a hurricane and an evacuation order is issued, patients will come inland from hospitals and nursing homes," Hurfford said. "Ham radio supports that to keep track of the buses and all the people coming in."

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Radio Response Team member David Kjellquist checks the network, which displays the linked network of radio teams across South Carolina.

Hufford said this became a major issue for Louisiana in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Confusion and chaos were widespread following the storm, and it became extremely difficult to keep track of where all the patients had been evacuated to.

"We don't want that to happen here," Hufford said.

The Radio Response Team at Aiken Regional works closely with Aiken County Emergency Management. Along with hurricanes, they are primarily concerned with tornadoes and manmade disasters, such as a chemical spill or nuclear accident.

In case of a disaster, the radio response team would be able to link agencies in Aiken County together, and could provide important communication between Aiken and the rest of the state. If there is a county-wide internet blackout, or if cellphone towers are damaged during a disaster, the Radio Response team would still have long-range communication capabilities.

There are over 550 FCC-licensed Radio Amateurs in Aiken County and over 9,500 in the state.  

Most of the volunteers with the Radio Response Team are veterans. Hufford became involved with the program during the ’90s, when he was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama.

During this time, he started listening to a system called Skywarn, in which Ham radio operators coordinate with local National Weather Service offices to report inclement weather.

"As I was listening to them, they were reporting a tornado in our neighborhood," Hufford said. "So I got the wife, the kids and a neighbor all in our bathtub. We’re sitting there listening to the scanner, and a tornado came right on our street, skipped over our house, and hit the house behind us… so I decided, this is a pretty good deal, and I became a Ham in 1990."

Skywarn is used in South Carolina to help monitor the local effects of major storms and hurricanes.

Kjellquist has been using Ham radios since he was 16. He got involved with a radio club in school and now enjoys volunteering for the radio team at Aiken Regional.

"I had a 30-year career with Lockheed Martin," Kjellquist said. "What happens is, you’re so busy doing that, that when you retire, now you get a chance to give back."

In addition to supporting hospital and Aiken County emergency back-up communications, the Radio Response Team also supports the Schofield Middle School Ham Radio Club.

The radio team competes in the ARRL School Club Roundup to test their Ham skills against schools from all over the country. Most recently, they placed first overall in the competition, beating out all other elementary, middle, high school and college radio clubs. 

"That’s one of the reasons I got involved at Schofield," Kjellquist said. "Middle school is when you grab them at that age, and show them that technology is fun and there’s so much you can do with it."

Despite its usefulness in emergency situations, Ham radio isn't just for natural or manmade disaster communication. Some people communicate via Ham radio systems as a hobby. One of these people, a WWII veteran who lives in Toledo, Ohio, communicates with the Aiken Regional team frequently. 

"It's the world's best hobby," said Hufford. 

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.