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Reservist's amateur radio skills lynch pin for emergency responders

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo (AFNS) --

He flips the switch on his radio, dialing into a local emergency channel and listens in. Focused, he concentrates, listening for the slight crackle of radio traffic.

With just dead air floating through the invisible radio waves, he leans into the microphone, pressing down on the mic's element, and talks to the world: "KØDRJ, this is KCØYCQ -- checking in".

The simple act of broadcasting his voice into the unknown instantly transforms Tech. Sgt. David Hodge from NCO in charge of standardization and evaluation for the 6th Space Operations Squadron, to a volunteer amateur radio operator with the responsibility of assisting in the coordination of resources and materials for first responders during disasters.

The eight-year Air Force reservist, who also operates Defense Meteorological Satellite Program weather satellites as a crew member, donates portions of his personal life for service to the community from what he said began as a mere hobby.

"One of the reasons why I do this is because I believe I have a skill set that not everyone has, yet can be used to help the community" Hodge said. "I'm a big geek with computers and software and in learning new things and how they work. I got interested in amateur communication and thought to myself, 'Hey, this is really cool.' I get on a radio in my house, and I can connect to a node on Cheyenne Mountain and, through the internet, talk to people in Australia and around the world. Then I started learning that anytime there is an emergency going on in the world, people lose all forms of communication -- except amateur radio."

In most emergency situations, civilian communication channels, to include cell phones, landlines and internet access, either go down or become inundated with emergency response coordination. With civilian lines either down or jammed up, amateur radio operators become the final conduits available for local and county law enforcement, fire departments, the Red Cross, and other organizations to maintain the crucial link of communication to ensure any response can take place.

His introduction to amateur radios started soon after leaving active duty in 2005. As well as becoming a space vehicle operator in the Reserve's 310th Space Wing, Hodge was also hired on with the Boeing Company. That's where he befriended one of his co-workers, who introduced him to the world of amateur radio.

From Hobbies to Helping

His introduction blossomed quickly, leading to the purchase of his first amateur radio base and receiving his Federal Communications Commission license in 2006.

Over time, Hodge began attending local radio club meetings. By 2007, Hodge had also become a member of the Pikes Peak Amateur Radio Emergency Services organization, which, according to the group's website, "provides public safety and public service communication support using HAM radios when conventional communication systems are damaged, destroyed, overloaded or otherwise unavailable."

Ongoing meetings and involvement in the radio community also brought Hodge to be trained by the National Weather Service as part of its "Skywarn" program, where amateur radio operators provide ground weather observation information to the NWS, based in Pueblo, Colo.

As if leading up to something greater, the technical sergeant was about to attend a typical amateur radio meeting that would lead to a chance encounter with the president of Colorado's Teller County Search and Rescue, putting him on a trajectory to turn his hobby into an asset for the Pikes Peak Region.

"I never thought about search and rescue, and my first thought was ‘how can I be beneficial?’" he said. "It didn't make any sense to me until I attend the meeting and I realized the entire structure of search and rescue throughout Colorado is 100-percent volunteers with people from all walks of life. I was surprised by the real impact I could truly have."

Hodge's wish to be beneficial to his community would soon be tested. For the next five years, he would support numerous search and rescue operations throughout both Teller and El Paso Counties, providing the crucial communication link between rescue teams on the ground and emergency operations centers.

In 2012, his radio skill sets would be tested to the limit as smoke began to billow from the crevasses of Colorado Spring's nearby Waldo Canyon.

"During the Waldo Canyon fire, I was one of three operators who could initially respond to the Teller County area," he said. "I spent four days living in the Red Cross shelter at Summit Elementary School in Divide, even taking over the principal's office to set up our communications equipment. As we stood up our radios, the sheriff ended up activating Teller County Search and Rescue to watch for other fires being started."

Hodge's involvement later as Teller County's chief of search and rescue communications helped to ensure the complete evacuation of Woodland Park as search and rescue teams were ordered out of the area by the sheriff. After rallying, Hodge helped to lead teams back into the town to mark each home to indicate citizens had either evacuated, or were staying to ride out the fires.

Already a now-experienced radio operator during natural disasters, Hodge was called out, once again, to respond to 2013's Black Forest fire. When word came via e-mail from the Pikes Peak Amateur Radio Emergency Services that radio operators were needed to support the Red Cross, and needed fast, Hodge turned to his squadron operations superintendent , Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey Buell.

"The flexibility of our squadron is certainly helpful for sergeant Hodge in that we understand that, if the mission is not impeded, he can go out and do what he needs to do," Buell said. "He has talents that people need to help with saving lives, so it's vital to allow him, as a resource, to get out there and help others."

Immediately, Hodge raced home to collect his "go kit" with a vest, radios and other gear. Soon after, he made his way 25 miles north to Monument, Colo., where together with another radio operator, he set up radio operations at the Palmer Ridge High School, which had just converted to a Red Cross shelter. There, he would be on hand for the first evacuees from Black Forest -- many of whom, unknowingly, were about to lose their homes. As people poured into the shelter, Hodge radioed into the Red Cross Regional Chapter Headquarters for immediate support.

"As these evacuees came in, we had only one nurse on hand to assist and the media was showing, in real time, homes burning," he said. "We immediately radioed for additional medical staff and even grief counselors. Other local responders answered our call for volunteers as well. This is what's great about amateur radio in that you can reach out and request resources and people can quickly respond." 

Being an NCO Benefits

Hodge believes it's important to look out after the health, morale and welfare of other Airmen. Perhaps it's no surprise this same mentality transitions over to wanting to help members of his community. The 33-year-old credits both his spirit of volunteerism and giving back partially to his Air Force upbringing.

"When you go through Airman Leadership School or the AF Academy, we're trained as NCOs to see where something is needed and figure out how to fill that need,” he said “That's helped me because I can see those problems with radio operating during crises to help find solutions to problems."

Hodge said being a space operator has helped to focus him during times of emergency.

"In space operations, you're trained to handle emergencies,” he said. “When a weather satellite streaks across the sky and you only have 12-14 minutes to make a correction or download data, you can't get overly excited. You have to remain calm and stay focused, and most of all, not lose your cool. All of this has helped out (with operating radios) because I need to be that calming voice on the radio to reinforce calm and order with others on the other end of the radio."

After having been put to the test in major emergency respond situations not once, but twice, the amateur radio operator has tackled events many others may never see. But going forward, Hodge wants to continue helping his community, becoming the "old hand" of knowledge for future operators to lean on.

"Now that we've had two years of all these fires and I've worked with various agencies during different emergencies, I see myself continually being involved in any emergency that happens," he said. "I see myself being involved less in the field with search and rescue teams and going more towards the operations and management side. I've served as an operator, helping at the shelters, as well as serving two years as the Teller County Search and Rescue treasurer. I want to do this not so much because I see myself a leader, but I have the experience of all these responses. I want to help train new people and share my experiences with the next generation of radio operators."

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