During an annual simulated emergency in October 2023, Nicholas Proulx (left) and Phil Schobert test out county-wide radio communications from the Portage County ARES mobile command trailer. (Metro Wire photo)

Local ham radio group trains to support hospital system during cyber attack

By Brandi Makuski

A cyber terrorist has taken control of the nation’s healthcare system. Communications are down, bringing hospital and medical operations to a grinding halt.

Enter Portage County’s ham radio group, Portage County ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group.

Nicholas Proulx and Phil Schobert, both members of the group, spent Saturday morning participating in the simulated emergency, which tested county-wide radio communications from the group’s command center — a mobile trailer known as EM50 — parked behind the Portage Co. Annex building.

The test is sponsored annually by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and is intended to test not only members’ personal emergency-operating skills but also the readiness of each respective group’s communications equipment, Schobert said.

As part of the exercise, Schobert and Proulx, both licensed ham radio operators, manned their comm center while other operators were deployed in their vehicles, ham radio gear in tow, to several strategic locations around the county to test the group’s ability to pass radio traffic via VHF/UHF/HF and other digital modes.

“We’re going around the county to all the shelters and hospitals and making sure we can get contact on the repeaters, and the non-repeaters, in the event we have a total grid failure,” Proulx explained. “Northwoods just called to let me know that Minocqua, Aspirus Howard Young, Aspirus Eagle River, and Aspirus Rhinelander were all set up and communicating.”

Proulx said that inside Portage Co., communications were fairly clear using regular walkie-talkie-style or CB radios, but, “if we needed to get one of the trauma centers on the radio, we can send a message on the radio.”

The annual test is sponsored by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) on the first Saturday in October.

“The primary purpose of this test is to ensure our ability to effectively communicate via our personal equipment as well as our club equipment operability,” Schobert said. “So far, so good. I was just talking to a guy in Shantytown right now and the signal was good. We had an excellent signal down to Moore Barn, but then they were pitching in and pitching out as you go through those hills, but that’s okay because we can just put a relay there, and now we know that.”

It’s one of several events that Portage County ARES holds throughout the year, including field day events every summer and winter, where the public is invited to learn more about amateur radio.

Schobert calls ham radio “the original social media” and says getting started in the field is inexpensive. The duo also welcomes those who are curious to attend a group meeting or reach out with questions.

Portage County ARES can be contacted via Facebook.