I had a chance to do something a little different last Saturday, an alternative to our yearly round of autumn festivities. I took part in Armstrong County’s annual autumn Simulated Emergency Test, brought to our neck of the woods by area amateur radio operators of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services and the Fort Armstrong Wireless Association, an affiliated club of the American Radio Relay League.

Quad-County Radio Club in DuBois also participated in the drill up in Clearfield and Jefferson counties and were in contact with the Armstrong County folks by radio. I didn’t hear from them personally, but I’m pretty sure that the Indiana, Butler and Venango county groups were also involved. Emergencies don’t always respect lines on a map.

I was appointed the new public information officer for the American Radio Relay League’s Western Pennsylvania section back in June. Saturday was my first field outting as a PIO. It was a bird’s-eye view of how the different pieces of a search and rescue operation fit together and work.

What is SET, who are these people and why should you care about what they do?

The SET exercises are held a couple of times a year, real-time practice for ARES and ham radio operators across the U.S. Local amateur operators take their own equipment into the field, often literally, to see if they can communicate with one another and the Armstrong County Office of Emergency Communications in Kittanning.

Amateur radio operators work beside professional emergency responders, because nothing can take the place of our local, county and state agencies. But there are times when they lend a hand in particular circumstances.

Saturday’s simulation could be too real in the coming months. A mythical 74-year-old hunter got lost in the Crooked Creek area and a theoretical search and rescue effort was mounted by area responders. In our minds, the county sheriff’s K-9 unit and a state police helicopter joined the search, which soon expanded to looking for the lost hunter’s mythical grandson.

“Lost in the woods” is a phrase you seldom hear around here. Even if you have been away for nearly 40 years, you really can’t get lost on the back roads. The lay of the land is etched into our brains from childhood.

But if you add in hypothermia, dehydration or low blood sugar levels, anyone can become disoriented and fuzzy-headed in the woods. Anyone can take a fall and get hurt, which is not comforting when you are in an area of spotty cell phone service. And not every hunter is a local.

Now, our mythical hunter did some good things before heading out into the woods. He left information with family members about his general plans and location. He also parked his vehicle in an easily found spot that gave rescue crews a good idea of where to begin their search.

His theoretical grandson broke a basic rule, though. He should have stayed with his grandfather and found a way to signal for help instead of walking several miles.

But Mr. Mythical didn’t check the weather in advance. The Armstrong County showrunners decided to add an approaching severe thunderstorm warning to the game. The ham operators put a Skywarn network on the air to give additional information to the rescue team.

Regular readers know that I’m always preaching the gospel of volunteering and getting active in our local communities, about many hands making light work. This is central to SET exercises, too.

There were about 12 participants in the Armstrong County exercise the other day, and most of us were north of the 60-year-old mark. But you don’t have to be muscly and 30-something to make a difference in the well-being of a lost hunter and his grandson.

I got to sit inside the Armstrong County OEC with the cool kids for about 45 minutes, and then it was time to venture out to the exercise’s control point near Cochran’s Mills in the Crooked Creek state park area for the conclusion of the exercise.

The mythical hunter was found and taken to a pretend medical facility as a precaution. His theoretical grandson was found a few miles away, checked out by legendary EMTs and taken home to his very relieved imaginary parents.

This is a story that would not quite fit into the feature-article category of either the L-V or the Tri-County Sunday, but I wanted to tell it to our readers. It is something to keep in mind if you or a loved one needs help out in a remote area where cell phones don’t work.

Deer season is not that far away, and hunters are already out stalking small game. It is not a bad idea to review safe hunting practices right now.

Let at least one person know where you are going and when you expect to come home. Park in a location where your vehicle can be found easily. If you get lost or are hurt, stay in one place and signal for help.

And remember that there are people out there who will find you and take you to safety. It might even be a neighbor brandishing a ham radio.

[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem, and is the public information officer for the 33-county Western Pennsylvania section of the American Radio Relay League. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]

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