THEY are helping to guard the public in the event of a disaster, but you may not have even heard of them.
Gwent’s RAYNET group – a bunch of licensed amateur radio enthusiasts who help the emergency services in the event of a communications meltdown – is part of a national organisation celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
The organisation was founded in 1953 when a tidal surge swept down the east coast of Britain, putting telephones and coastal radio stations out of action.
A lone radio amateur answered four distress calls, prompting the Government to change the Amateur Radio Licence to allow third party traffic over the airwaves on behalf of the police, fire and ambulance, and so the Radio Amateurs’ Emergency Network was formed.
Now, around 20 Gwent members volunteer their time in planning for “civil emergencies” and practice what they would do if mobile phone masts and modern technology lost power.
Using battery-powered radio equipment and, increasingly, digital technology, RAYNET members can send messages on behalf of the emergency services and typically get involved in emergency exercises arranged by councils, such as “Grief Encounter” organised by Monmouthshire Council in 2011, simulating a train crash.
They also help at charity events like the TumbleUp4Life bike ride for cancer planned next year.
“We meet once a month at various local authorities,” said Chris Hill, controller of the Gwent group whose members pay an annual fee and must be a licensed amateur.
“One of the reasons amateurs can help in emergencies is that if masts lose power, the police airwaves go down as well. A lot of our stuff is battery-based.”
The group carry out hospital-to-hospital communication when two members stand on the roof of the hospital and pass messages back and forth, and can use car batteries to power their equipment.
All amateurs must be insured, have a police check and be licensed in case they intercept a distress message from a ship, or build their own equipment which accidentally broadcasts on a military frequency.
There are also radio enthusiasts who communicate by bouncing signals off the surface of the moon.Mr Hill said: “A lot of people who do this used to be in the emergency services and when they retire they keep up the hobby. We do exercises and they feel very real, you have to be careful what you say and make sure you get the message across correctly.”
Members carry a list of emergency equipment including blankets, warm clothing, a compass, local Ordnance Survey maps, a charged-up hand-held radio and a list of frequencies.
To join, call Mr Hill on 07905 100633.