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Public Service in Paradise

Public Service in Paradise

February 22, 2019 12:52 am0 comments

Public Service in Paradise: The US Virgin Islands

The Territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands is comprised of three islands: St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.  St. Thomas (population 40,000) is familiar to most as the busiest Caribbean cruise-ship destination, with some 1,500,000 annual passengers.  St. John (population 1,500), just east of St. Thomas, is nearly as large, and only accessible by ferry.  Two-thirds of St. John is a national park, and hence lacks significant development.  St. Croix (population 40,000), is the largest of the three islands and lies 35 miles south of St. Thomas.  There is a robust amateur community, with repeaters, nets, and clubs on each island.  The USVI was incorporated into the ARRL Field Organization as the ARRL Virgin Islands Section in 1982, and its current Section Manager, Fred Kleber, K9VV/NP2X, has served since 2012. 

If this sounds like paradise, it is, but sometimes not so much.  With its closet mutual aid responders some 1,000 miles away, amateur radio has historically played a vital role.  As category five hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled the Caribbean, amateur radio provided a critical communications link for the Territory.  Territory ARES® hams supported local and Federal partners, including communication with US Navy aircraft and vessels.  Following the devastation from hurricane Irma, first responders were in search-and-rescue mode.  The priorities were rescue, medical evacuation, hospital recovery, damage assessment, port repairs, and shelters.

On the heels of Irma, hurricane Maria’s outer eye-wall crossed St. Croix at category 5 intensity.  (185 MPH sustained and 200+ MPH gusts!)  Maria caused catastrophic damage to St. Croix.  The majority of buildings were damaged or destroyed.  Some 95% of the utility poles in St. Croix had fallen, and the majority of cell telephone sites were out.   St. John was especially hard hit with 8 of 9 cell sites inoperable. 

The St. Croix Amateur Radio Club (SCARC) and USVI ARES® supported the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) acting under ESF-2 (Communications) from September 5 through October 2, 2017.  From the St. Croix EOC, SCARC acted as net control relying heavily on the shared 60-meter band to conduct nets involving Territorial, Federal, and non-governmental agencies.  Traffic was passed between the EOC, responding agencies, Puerto Rico, the Hurricane Watch Net (14.325 MHz), and the Friendly Net (7.188 MHz).   VI ARES® coordinated many medical evacuations, supply flights, and provided other logistical communications support.  

Although not ultimately required, Kleber planned to deploy wireless mesh network nodes to provide data connectivity between key USVI government locations. “We have used every trick in our comms bag of tricks to make stuff work,” he said.  A total of 2,232 volunteer man-hours were provided by the team of 13 dedicated VI amateurs.  Commercial power restoration exceeded 100 days in some locations.  Understandably, amateur radio filled a huge telecommunications gap.

More Than Just Hurricane Response

Amateur radio operators serve other public safety functions across the Islands.  On October 3, 2018, St. John Rescue members Larry Pruss, NP2LP, and Jennifer Pruss, NP2QT, were attending the monthly meeting of the volunteer organization.  The meeting was interrupted by a request for assistance from the VI Police Department.  The police had received a report of an empty small vessel washed up on the rocks in Reef Bay.   Larry Pruss, NP2LP, and Jennifer Pruss, NP2QT, immediately headed to the search area, while other St. John Rescue members commenced the maritime portion of the search.  The severely injured and dehydrated boater was found huddled amidst the treacherous rocks, and his life was saved.  For Larry and Jennifer Pruss, it was a family affair: daughter Tia, NP2RE, had made the initial call for assistance using her newly acquired license and traffic handling skills.  Following the successful rescue of the stranded boater, both daughters, Tia, NP2RE, and Skylar, NP2QS, radioed the reports that the mariner had been located.

Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a devastated St. John community awoke to the realization of the critical value of the amateur service.  The Pruss family has been the spark plug of a new generation of hams on St. John. Through the assistance of Gilly Grimes, NP2OW, the support of St John Rescue, and two technician class sessions, the region now has 23 new hams.  This is quite an impressive accomplishment in just six months!  These new licensees are members of the community, St. John Rescue, the National Park Service, the Fire Service, and include four youngsters under 13 years old.  Five have completed the requirements to become ARES® members.

Additionally, one of the Pruss’ initial examinees, Dr. Henry Smith, NP2QP, is nearly finished teaching a new crop of a dozen future technician licensees on St. Thomas.  Local old timers are assisting new licensees with antenna building classes, public service opportunities, and well attended field day exercises.  The bottom line is a cadre of new and upgraded hams, resulting in a larger, trained, and more robust, ham population to support future disasters. 

Hurricanes Aftermath: Rebuild, Enhance Amateur Infrastructure

After the 2017 storms rocked the Territory, media interest waned, and the mainland US turned its eyes to western wildfires.  The USVI was left to pick up the pieces, but not alone.  Kleber recounted new relief “friends” gained in helping the USVI rebuild: FEMA employees, US Army Corps of Engineers, National Guard, US Army, private consultants, linemen, National Park Service, etc.  “Some of their responders were hams who showed up on the local repeater and attended club meetings,” Kleber said, “The Territory is forever indebted to these individuals and their organizations,” he added.  “They have made a huge difference.”

As for amateur service hardware, the Territory ham repeater network suffered extensive damage.  The sole on-air repeater (NP2VI) provided hand-held coverage to the helicopter landing zone and other critical locations.  Kleber reported “Through one of our new relief friends, who happened to be a ham, we were introduced to a philanthropic opportunity to purchase new repeaters, controllers, link radios, PV panels and batteries.”   Kleber is happy to report the USVI inter-island repeater system is completely connected with resilient UHF links.  Additional linked repeaters are currently being installed on all islands.  When commercial power is lacking, PV panels and batteries power the system.  Echolink/IRLP capability will have soon been added, as well as linking to Puerto Rico.  Lastly, there are plans to link to a 5-island system with coverage reaching south to Dominica.

Hams and Territorial Entities Continue to Work Together

It wasn’t long ago that St John personnel got word that the Mamey Peak radio tower — home to mission critical repeater antennas serving the Rescue service and the Virgin Islands National Park Service was being shut down.  Rescue members and park employees had used the tower repeater antennas to assist police, fire, and emergency medical services.  With the help of the National Park Superintendent, a new physical location for a tower was found atop Lizard Hill and technical challenges were overcome.  Gilly Grimes, NP2OW, oversaw the successful project, which was an excellent example of government agencies and organized volunteer radio amateurs can work together.  Logistical communications for triathlons, walk-a-thons, and water based events, continue to provide venues for new hams to practice their communications and technical skills. 

ARRL Field Day is Big for Territory’s Amateur Community and Government Agencies

The 2018 ARRL Field Day provided a great opportunity for new and veteran hams to get out and exercise the new amateur systems, operators’ experience, training, and the resulting new response capabilities.  Kleber acknowledged a great promotional effort spearheaded by USVI SEC, Daryl Jaschen, NP2QD, resulted in the attendance of many staff and officials from local partner agencies, such as VITEMA, the VI National Guard, St. Croix Rescue, and the American Red Cross.  The media was also represented.

Going Forward

For their efforts in post storm response, Kleber and fellow USVI amateurs were awarded the ARRL 2018 Humanitarian Award.  Additionally Kleber was lauded for his individual efforts with the YASME Excellence Award.

VI hams frequently attend ICS classes and training exercises. These interactions form a foundational bond and future interactions with partner agency personnel.  With the influx of new hams, grants, and the old timer expertise, the Territory amateurs are well positioned to support future responses. If you would like to follow future developments, please visit

Figure 1 – FD “Class photo” at Cramer’s Park – the St. Croix VITEMA mobile EOC. (photo courtesy K9VV/NP2X)

Figure 2“Graduation photo” at St. John Rescue test session – (photo courtesy K9VV/NP2X)


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