Radio 'dynamos' help to save lives: Volunteer radio operators provide emergency backup to hospitals

Standing outside the swinging door of a busy coffee shop in the University Village, Marina Zuetell turns her back on the noisy crowds chattering inside. With her cellular phone pressed against her ear, she strains to hear what the person on the other end is saying.

More than just about anyone, Zuetell knows all too well the importance of communication and what could happen if a message is unable to be heard.

It is not easy to recognize what Zuetell does or who she is by the mere words "Medical Services Team"printed across the back of her jacket. These words do not spell out the long hours she spends as a diplomat, organizing her small team of volunteers in cramped offices scattered with ham radios and dials and tangled in wire.

One could not look at Zuetell and easily be able to recognize that her life is spent on-call, helping hospitals and training and preparing, mostly, for Washington's "big one."

However chaotic it may seem, Zuetell loves her work as a licensed, amateur radio operator.

Backup communication

Radio operators provide backup communication to hospitals when it is needed, which, according to Zuetell, is primarily during major disasters, like earthquakes.

"But," she said, "any time there's a mass casualty incident with a large number of victims that are in the field, the hospitals need communication between the field and the hospital, and normally the 800 megahertz radio that the Public Safety Emergency Medical System (the ambulance and paramedic people) use is adequate.

"But sometimes the scale is so large that the hospital needs additional information," she added.

This is where people like Zuetell offer their assistance.

A hospital in Bellingham, for example, had lost communication several times between 9-1-1 and the hospital, Zuetell said.

"Someone apparently cut their fiber-optic lines into Whatcom County," she said. Her team had to go in and help.

'Amateur' status

But what does it really mean to be licensed, and why are operators considered amateurs?

The Federal Communications Commission licenses radio operators after they pass one of three levels of tests, Zuetell said, which include entry level, general class and the extra class that is very technically advanced and requires a knowledge of Morse code.

"Most of the emergency communications people are technician or general - it's just what attracts them to the hobby," Zuetell said.

So after passing an examination, it would seem that operators are far from "amateur." Yet this is because this type of work is strictly volunteer, and people get involved for various reasons.

Some people find it their civic duty to help their country; others are simply interested in emergency communications.

But then there are those like Zuetell, who decide to give it a go, but later find that this work moves beyond duty.

"It just sort of grew on me, and I decided that I really did have a mission in life to help the hospitals communicate," Zuetell said.

A nationwide model

Duane Mariotti, director of clinical engineering at Harborview Medical Center, has worked with Zuetell for more than a decade. Harborview is the disaster medical-control hospital for the region.

"Marina is extremely dedicated. She's the driving force who has created a nationwide model about how hospitals and volunteers can work together for (communicative) support," Mariotti said.

Zuetell is also the district emergency coordinator for the Medical Services Communications Team, a subset of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, and she works as a communications technology specialist for the Washington State Department of Health.

She said she is responsible for coordinating the installation of amateur radios and satellite phones, two common layers of communications in every hospital in the state.

Zuetell first became aware of a need for emergency communications when she worked for Group Health Cooperative.

In 1989, when Southern California had an earthquake, she said she realized that all hospitals were susceptible to loss of communication.

"In 1990 a friend of mine and I who were both ham-radio operators decided to start an emergency communications team for Group Health, and within about six months, we realized that it needed to be more than just Group Health. It needed to be all of the hospitals and all of the medical facilities," Zuetell said.

So they started building, and since then, the program has evolved.

Needed volunteers

Ed Bruette, section manager for Western Washington with the American Radio Relay League, recently presented Zuetell with a certificate of merit in recognition of her efforts in coordinating seven Communication Academies and the dedication and leadership she has displayed.

"We need more volunteers like her," Bruette said.

According to Zuetell, finding enough people to operate has been one of her major challenges. Another obstacle is getting people properly trained so they're ready to respond.

"They're volunteers," Zuetell said, "and we can't require that they have any training. We can only encourage and provide it for them."

Despite these difficulties, Zuetell believes that her team is one of the best-trained and most dedicated. "They're really wonderful people," she said.

One of the most satisfying parts of her work has been watching these operators grow and develop their skills.

Zuetell also has enjoyed seeing the recognition that the hospitals have come to of what services they can provide.

"The first few years, it was a real battle convincing [the hospitals] they needed us, and now they really, really appreciate what we've been doing for them and encourage us to continue," she said.

And Zuetell will continue.

"My [daughter] has a term she calls a 'dynamo.' That's what Marina is," Mariott said. "She's a savvy dynamo who understands the politics of things, and at the same time, she keeps the thrust of power going so [people] can accomplish their goals. She truly is a stellar performer. The community owes her their debt of gratitude."

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