election day radios

TOM VICTORIA | Herald

Amateur radio operator Mike Varga mans a radio similar to those he and other operators will use to communicate between Mercer County election officials and a polling location in French Creek Township.

FRENCH CREEK TOWNSHIP – Mercer County Voter Registration and Election Bureau is trying to make waves — radio waves, that is — in the hopes of making today’s election run a little more smoothly.

The county plans to employ amateur radio operators to keep communications open by transmitting to and from the polling site at Milledgeville Community Christian Church on Sandy Lake Road and the election bureau in the Mercer County Courthouse.

Jeff Greenburg, election bureau director, said radio transmissions will serve as the main communication to and from the closed church, which does not have a land-line telephone.

“I see this ... as more of an opportunity to test the county’s emergency response capabilities in the event that we would lose communications in a precinct,” Greenburg said.

Greenburg said the county started looking into using radios after the price of installing temporary land lines spiked last fall. The cost ballooned from $50 to more than $200.

“It was sticker shock,” he said.

With cell phone coverage spotty in the township, Greenburg said radios provided a viable alternative to communicate with the polling site.

Several organizations – the Mercer County Amateur Radio Club, Auxiliary Communication Services, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services and Amateur Radio Emergency Services –are providing operators for Election Day.

Group liaison Mike Varga said amateur radio operators will work three-hour shifts scheduled at the church throughout the day before polls open and after they close.

He said the radio operators see this as a way to give back to the county.

Varga already checked out the site.

“I tested the communications there,” he said.

Other operators will man equipment stationed in the Mercer County Courthouse to receive and send messages. Greenburg said the radio would likely be in the courthouse’s assembly room due to a lack of space in the election department. The assembly room is on the courthouse’s ground floor across from the election office.

Varga said the system will use two repeaters.

“We will transmit from the church,” he said. “A radio, called a repeater, will hear the signal. Then, it will transmit it on another frequency. The listening ham will hear that signal. It works the same in the other direction.”

Varga said the process has a purpose.

“We like a lot of redundancy,” he said.

Greenburg pointed out the county previously partnered in 2014 with amateur radio operators to assist health agencies to provide flu shots as part of a pandemic drill. Because of the communication volunteers, Greenburg said there were no problems reaching the areas where health care providers gave shots.

“They were able to communicate back and forth,” he said.

Frank Jannetti, Mercer County public safety director, said his office would call on the radio operators if emergency services communications malfunction. He said working with them, including during the 2014 pandemic drills, was one reason the county asked them to help out in the primary.

“That’s why I suggested the county use them,” Jannetti said.

Greenburg said the county will probably use the temporarily landlines instead of radios in the 2020 primary and general elections because of the expectation for increased turnout in the presidential races.

The following year could be a different story.

“I can see it in 2021,” Greenburg said.