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City utility supervisor keeps communications flowing for quake relief

July 04, 2010|By JANET HEIM
  • Ronald Meihls of Maugansville is a federally licensed amateur radio operator. He was part of relief efforts in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake there.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

MAUGANSVILLE-- By day, Ronald Meihls is operations and maintenance supervisor for the City of Hagerstown's Water and Sewer Department.

By night, he is a federally licensed amateur radio operator known as KB3MBS, whose skills helped in relief efforts when he traveled to Haiti about five weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Meihls provided backup communications for the Medishare Field Hospital at the airport in Port-au-Prince.

"This was a critical lifeline, because all communication was down but the radios," Meihls said.

At his Maugansville home, Meihls, 54, has two full-time weather stations, one of which continually sends information to the National Weather Service and dozens of universities. He also has voice and digital tuners and amplifiers that are part of his ham radio operation.

Meihls communicates with people all over the world and is a "repeater," which means specific people worldwide can access his radios.

He is a member of the Hagerstown-based Antietam Radio Association and is a net -- or network -- controller for Maritime Mobile Service net, which helps ships at sea with communication, Army Mars, Skywarn net and Hurricane Watch net.

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The day after the earthquake, Meihls was in contact with the president of the Haiti Radio Club.

"This is my hobby. It's strictly volunteer. When it's hurricane season, it gets busy," Meihls said.

Meihls has enjoyed this hobby for about four years and said he spends a lot of time from 3:30 to 11 p.m. at his computer/weather station.

He said he was interested in ham radio in the 1970s, but couldn't pass the Morse code test.

Wife's first name? The Meihlses were married in 1975 and his interest in the hobby went by the wayside, he said. They have three grown children.

Meihls was part of an Army family that moved from place to place every few years. He and his wife met at Fort Ritchie.

Meihls decided to take up the hobby just before the Morse code test requirement was removed, but this time he passed after 11 1/2 months of trying and is glad for acquiring the skills, which are still widely used.

They were helpful in Haiti, because Morse code could penetrate the noise of the area.

The trip to Haiti was a result of an e-mail Meihls received in mid-February from the National Hurricane Center through Maritime Mobile net. Radio operators willing to pay to travel to Haiti to help out were needed.

Meihls and his wife agreed that he should go, using vacation time from work for the 1 1/2-week trip. He indicated his interest and two days later got the message that he had been assigned to a team and was flying out Feb. 22 to Miami, and then on to Haiti.

Meihls was one of only 10 from the U.S. to go. Having a valid passport and being up-to-date on his vaccines helped. All he needed was a tetanus booster and he had to take malaria pills once in Haiti.

He said they spent 16-hour days on the U.S. compound, which had a strong U.S. military presence. They were set up in large tents just off the airport runway. Meihls compared the hospitals to the setup in the TV show M*A*S*H.

Meihls and his team, supported by Medishare and the National Hurricane Center in Miami, provided backup communication and had direct contact with medical personnel in the U.S. and on the USS Comfort, a medical ship offshore in Haiti.

They slept in tents and food, which Meihls said was "a little sparse," came in the form of military Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).

"It was quite an eye opener ... This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime event for me," Meihls said.

Meihls said he was impressed with the patience and composure of the earthquake victims.

"Whole tents (of the injured) would be singing gospel songs. They were happy to be alive," he said.

Meihls has prepared a PowerPoint presentation and photo album about his trip that he will share with those who are interested.

More information about becoming an amateur radio operator or about Antietam Radio Association may be obtained by calling Bob Long at 301-824-5132 or sending e-mail to him at rjlong61@myactv.net.

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