September is National Preparedness Month

The emblem of SATERN features a radio tower.

Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) Works with Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) to keep the World Safe

When William H. “Bill” Feist III got his Novice and General amateur radio license as a high schooler in 1968, being part of The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) wasn’t part of his game plan for his future – in fact, the all-volunteer organization of licensed amateur radio operators – didn’t even exist until 20 years later.

As a teenager, amateur radio (also known as ham radio) was an interesting hobby that brought Feist’s interests in electronics, people and communication together.  As an adult, he realized it was a calling.

“There’s no doubt this is what God has called me to do.  There are all forms of ministry and disaster relief work is one of the forms of ministry,” Feist said.

Feist became involved in SATERN in 1994, was named a statewide SATERN Coordinator in 1995, became a Divisional SATERN Coordinator in the Northern Division (Minnesota and North Dakota), and has been The Salvation Army’s Southern Territory SATERN Coordinator since 2008. Since 2016, he has also served as the National SATERN Liaison.

“It’s an interesting and fulfilling job. I work with the four disaster coordinators – Eastern, Southern, Central and Western Divisions.  Each is a separate entity. Each has multiple divisions. We have nine divisions in the Southern Division,” Feist said.

Major Patrick E. McPherson created The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network. He remained the national SATERN Director until his retirement in 2011. He died in May 2016, just a week before he was to be awarded the Exceptional Service Award by The Salvation Army National Headquarters for his leadership in developing and leading SATERN.

Amateur radio is used to talk across town and around the world – even into space. So, why not use it to help people in times of disaster thought Major Patrick E. McPherson when he proposed it to The Salvation Army in 1988.

“Major McPherson, who was the EDS Director for the Heartland Division at the time, created SATERN to support The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) program with emergency communications.  As a result, SATERN operators are EDS volunteers with a specialty in emergency communications.  Each SATERN volunteer is an amateur radio operator who has been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after learning electronics and radio theory and relevant FCC regulations and then passing a FCC test to obtain their license.  SATERN volunteers may be a Salvation Army officer, soldier, or employee.  However, most SATERN volunteers are community members who are licensed amateur radio operators whose only connection to The Salvation Army is through SATERN,” Feist said.

Feist, too, has served as an EDS Director for The Salvation Army. In 1998, he was hired as the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) EDS Director and became an Assistant Divisional EDS Director for the Northern Division (Minnesota and North Dakota) in 2000. In August, 2004, Feist became the Divisional EDS Director and SATERN Coordinator for the Alabama-Louisiana-Mississippi (ALM) Division.

“My amateur radio call sign is WB8BZH.  An amateur radio operator’s call sign is very precious to that operator.  The operator is the only person in the world with that call sign.  It is unique and specific to that person who has worked hard to study electronics, radio theory and government regulations in order to take and pass the government test required to become a license amateur radio operator.  This is true of amateur radio operators worldwide,” Feist said.

There are about 2 million amateur radio operators in the world, and U.S. citizens represent nearly half of that number – over 800,000 at last count.

Richard Carey (left) and Mark Griggs (right) operating the SATERN station during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“SATERN first went on-the-air on Saturday, June 25, 1988 with four amateur radio operators – two from the U.S. and two from Canada.  Two months later, SATERN responded to its first international disaster by providing emergency communications from Jamaica to the United States during Hurricane Gilbert which killed 341 people in the Caribbean and Central America.  SATERN was a critical element in passing emergency messages between Atlanta, Georgia, and Jamaica,” Feist said.

From those original four amateur radio operators in 1988, SATERN has grown to have a registered membership of over 4,300 amateur radio operators in the continental United States and another 180 registered international members.

Nearly 30 years later, SATERN’s purpose continues to be “To provide The Salvation Army and its Emergency Disaster Services ministry with emergency and auxiliary communications and technical expertise.”

SATERN has three primary missions, Feist explained:  (1) Manage emergency, priority and health and welfare messages – usually via amateur radio but also by other means when that is more efficient; (2) Provide operational and tactical communications; and (3) Provide technical expertise.

“Not all, but many SATERN volunteers have a wide range of technical skills including Internet technology, knowledge and experience with generators, electronics, satellite communications, expertise with other forms of radio communications besides amateur radio, drones, computer programming and many more.  SATERN volunteers come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds including doctors, nurses, Internet technology (IT) professionals, emergency management professionals, the military, law enforcement, lawyers, mechanics and almost any other profession imaginable.  The commonality is that each of these SATERN volunteers brings their individual professional skills to a disaster operation in addition to their amateur radio skills,” Feist said.

A map shows the continental United States SATERN operations.

SATERN has served at the local, national and international levels in many disasters.

“Over the years, SATERN has become an international leader in providing health and welfare message support during both national and international disasters.  Several amateur radio partners involved in emergency communications regularly refer other amateur radio operators and groups to the International SATERN Nets for this service so that they can concentrate on their unique missions,” Feist said.

When asked if any disasters stood out for him personally, Feist was quick to respond.

“The Red River Valley Flood.  In April 1997, SATERN provided emergency communications support for The Salvation Army in Grand Forks following a devastating flood that inundated 85% of the city resulting in the evacuation of 50,000 people from Grand Forks, North Dakota, and another 10,000 people from East Grand Forks, Minnesota. SATERN remained active in this disaster for several weeks. It then helped The Salvation Army negotiate, install and manage a more permanent commercial radio system that was used for several years afterwards. They also helped personnel with managing a relatively new and – at that time – unfamiliar communications device called a cellular phone,” Feist said.

A map shows the international SATERN operations.

He was the SATERN Coordinator for North Dakota at that time. In the three weeks he served at the disaster site, he saw firsthand the devastation flooding can have on the human spirit.

“Flooding is often not covered by insurance so they had nothing to rebuild.  Of all the different kinds of disasters, as an employee and a volunteer, floods are the disasters I hate the most because folks are often on their own with the help from The Salvation Army and other organizations being the only help they receive. Floods are probably the hardest to raise money for.  The needs are so great because most people don’t have flood insurance. It’s the worst of both worlds,” Feist said.

Another flooding disaster in 2005 – Hurricane Katrina – was the single most notable SATERN response, Feist said.

“The SATERN Network received over 61,000 missing person requests that came into the network at an overwhelming rate of 20 messages and inquiries per second.  In spite of the massive challenges presented by this flood of requests and with the help of SATERN volunteers who were IT professionals and commercial companies that donated their time, personnel and resources, SATERN managed to locate 25,508 people in the disaster area. SATERN also handled numerous requests for emergency assistance that saved lives during one of the worst disaster in U.S. history,” Feist said.

Spring, summer, fall and winter, the need for SATERN’s skills and response never stops – as does the need for volunteers.

“This year, the first few months were nonstop. From Christmas to March, every week it was something.  We can always use volunteers and amateur radio operators in disaster services.  It is the ministry and it is worth considering,” Feist said.

Also on Feist’s mind for National Preparedness Month is the need to remind citizens to be prepared personally for unexpected disasters.

“I encourage people to have a family disaster plan so everyone knows a place to meet outside the home so they know how to find each other.  Everyone in the family needs to know: Where do they go? Who do they call? A disaster kit is important, too.  The Red Cross has good resources for that,” Feist said referring to http://www.redcross.org/get-help/prepare-for-emergencies/be-red-cross-ready/get-a-kit.

Even the August 21, 2017 Great American Solar Eclipse didn’t escape the SATERN leader’s attention. The group partnered with the American Red Cross and the American Radio Relay League to provide a national communications link for local Red Cross units across the U.S. in the event of a communications failure during the eclipse.

Bill Feist became the National SATERN Liaison in 2016.

“We are always preparing and training officers and volunteers and making sure equipment is working and plans are in place, coordinating with other organizations and the government,” Feist said.

Bill Feist is a man with a plan, dedicating his life to encouraging others to be prepared and help their fellow human beings in times of disaster – certainly this is a calling from God he has heeded well.

If you are interested in learning more about The Salvation Army’s National Emergency Disaster Services, go to: Disaster.SalvationArmyUSA.org  To learn more about the national and international efforts of SATERN, visit:  SATERN.org.  If you are interested in receiving the weekly SATERN Newsletter, contact National SATERN Liaison Bill Feist for additional information at Bill.Feist@USS.SalvationArmy.org.

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