When all else fails go to MARS
By Airman 1st Class Omari Bernard, JBER Public Affairs
/ Published December 11, 2013
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- With the steady progression of technology, it's possible to communicate from almost anywhere via the internet or by cell phone. Today's communications rely on underground cables, cellphone towers and orbiting satellites, but what happens when they fail?
When all else breaks, the government uses the tried-and-true communications of the past: the military auxiliary radio system.
Accoding to Department of Defense Instruction 4650.02 MARS shall provide health, morale and welfare radio communications support to military members, civilian employees and contractors of DoD components, and civil agency employees and contractors, when in remote or isolated areas, in contingencies or whenever appropriate.
"The principle purpose of MARS was to deal with morale," said Ron Keech, secretary of the Elmendorf Amateur Radio Society. "However, that has changed over the years."
Keech explained that MARS currently exists to ensure JBER and other agencies have the ability to transmit, relay and receive messages in times of crisis and emergency.
Natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires and high winds can easily disrupt communications, Keech said.
"We provide emergency communications for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Homeland Security, the municipality of Anchorage and the state of Alaska Emergency Operations Center," Keech said. "We provide a secondary communications route to them if their primary routes were to fail."
The Elmendorf Radio Club MARS station is located on top of a hill on JBER and backed up by generator power.
"If the worst happens, our facility will still be able to pass messages verbally, digitally via electronic mode or via the winlink radio system - a radio to email process," Keech said.
MARS operators do not operate on Federal Communication Commission frequencies that normal amateur radio operators do, but under official federal frequencies that are not regulated by the FCC.
"We are able to pass traffic to where it needs to get without unintentional interference from other amateur radio operators using the normal spectrum," Keech said. "Depending on where the message needs to go, we relay it from station to station and vice versa."
When communications need to get from point A to point B, MARS operators don't need to depend on the power grid, land based communications or satellites, Keech said.
"The idea is to get whatever emergency transmissions through as expeditiously and accurately as possible," he said.
The closest MARS stations to Alaska are in Washington and Hawaii; The MARS station here is operating under the Navy MARS program.
"Originally, there were three service MARS programs in the state of Alaska," Keech said, a former Army MARS operator. "They were Air Force, Army and Navy. Back in the 90's the Air Force shut down the MARS program for JBER and Eielson Air Force Base."
The Army continued its program for a while, but eventually shut it down as well.
For those interested, there are requirements to become a MARS operator.
"You have to become an amateur operator before you can become a MARS operator," Keech said. "If you have military radio background it is very easy to transfer into the MARS program. About 70 percent of MARS operators have no military or communications background."
It takes three weeks to one month for an amateur radio operator to become a MARS operator.
"We have to teach them all over again to get rid of the bad lessons they have learned as amateurs," Keech said. "Amateurs do things that are very loose format usually."
Emergency communications requires a strict doctrine.
"It is standardized across the system," Keech said. "You can not be misunderstood. The idea of the MARS program is to have a cadre of trained operators that practice often so they know their limitations, capabilities and can communicate competently," Keech said. "The MARS program trains people to stay up too that level. They know what to communicate with, what they can't communicate with and how to work out problems as they arise."