Editor’s Note: This continues our Celebrate Community series on nonprofit organizations that improve Santa Rosa County residents’ quality of life.
MILTON — After retiring from the military, T.H. Merritt moved to Milton and began the hobby of amateur radio operation. Now, he and 12 other amateur radio operators make up the Rural Radio Preparedness Association — an organization that hopes to bring an emergency radio network to the north ends of Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties and Escambia County, Alabama.
Merritt said he was shocked to see there was only one amateur radio repeater north of Milton and basically no digital service available for most of the rural areas.
“This is 2018 and the world is a very dangerous place today,” Merrit said. “Our lives depend on communication and we have seen how easily it can be disrupted or even destroyed.”
Merritt joined forces with the Brewton Amateur Radio Union and their president, Larry Fussell, to achieve the goal of bringing radio communication to the local rural areas in case of natural disasters or other crises. The RRPA officially launched Jan. 18 and all members are licensed radio operators.
The organization’s first goal is to build a D-STAR repeater for the area. D-STAR is a new digital technology specifically for amateur radio that allows users to transmit audio, video, data, forms and photos without the need for commercial power or internet.
According to Merritt, the plan is to build the repeater near the state line at Jay so there will be 30-mile coverage across Escambia, Conecuh, north Baldwin, southeast Monroe and southern Butler Counties in Alabama and cover rural, north Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties in Florida.
Another advantage of the D-STAR repeater is the ability for users to support law enforcement and emergency management when communication lines are down.
“We’re not the law. We’re not public service. We’re volunteers,” Fussell said. “We do these things behind the scenes that most people don’t know about.”
Santa Rosa County has multiple amateur radio operators that volunteer to help in times of need.
“We have amateur radio volunteers who will support the Emergency Operations Center when requested and accept information from any source that contacts them,” Santa Rosa County Emergency Management Plans Chief Daniel Hahn said.
As a licensed radio operator since 2016, Merritt understands the demand for this type of service during events like hurricanes to provide information from the amount of food needed for Red Cross shelters to health and welfare checks between family members.
“They always turn to us,” Merritt said. “When the chips are down, they have enough to deal with and they know they can depend on us to get the message through and help them on search and rescue operations if necessary.”
The group has recently met with local business owners and politicians asking for their support. Their next formal meeting is March 15 at the Brewton Library; they will rotate meetings between Brewton, Jay and Atmore. The RRPA plans to appoint a board of advisors to help plan the projects.
The group plans to offer regular classes on family communication plans and other emergency preparedness subjects for rural families. Participants meet on the radio every Thursday night to test equipment and check in with each other from as far east as Paxton and as far north as Butler County, Ala.
“In the end, the key to surviving a crisis is information,” Merritt said. “If you don’t have information, you’re paralyzed.”