SATERN — Answering the Call When Disaster Strikes

Amateur radio operators give The Salvation Army communications options

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When hurricanes or tornados tear through communities, the path of destruction can be heartbreaking. People are often killed or seriously injured. Homes and businesses destroyed. Trees, and lives, uprooted. Communication can become impossible with power lines snapped, cell phone towers down and telephone poles splintered. That's when The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) answers the call.


SATERN is an all-volunteer organization of amateur radio operators who assist The Salvation Army's Emergency Disaster Services. Based in Kansas City, Missouri, SATERN has local branches in all 50 states, Canada and other parts of the world. The ham radio network has been in operation and providing service to The Salvation Army for more than 30 years. SATERN supplied critical communications support in New York on 9/11, in California in 1994 following the Northridge earthquake, and more recently for Hurricane's Andrew, Katrina, Harvey and Maria, among many others.

SATERN was awarded a customized Ford Transit van in the Ford Disaster Relief Mobility Challenge. The vehicle arrived earlier this year and is in the process of being retrofitted with the specialized wiring, radio equipment and other essentials needed for a top-notch mobile communications center.

John Callahan is the director of divisional emergency disaster services for The Salvation Army in Kansas City. A retired fire chief, John says SATERN also partners with first responders and relief agencies when a disaster has damaged or destroyed the communications infrastructure in the community.

Salvation Army's Emergency Disaster Services radio operator with equipment

"With disasters a lot of times communications systems go down, but the ham radio operators somehow can work their magic and have their communications up and going. They bring all their own stuff. They're stand alone. They have their own antennas. They have a variety of radios. It's amazing what they can do. They can patch in different radio systems and talk to each other. They can hook into a digital system. They can also get you on the internet and talk to almost any place in the world. It's a pretty impressive, robust system that we have. We utilize them greatly in so many different ways. If we go out on a disaster and we're feeding from a canteen, we always send a SATERN operator with them so the vehicle has communication. If anything goes wrong, maybe they can't find a location because street signs are torn down or they're not familiar with the area, they can radio in. If we're out feeding we can get more meals, instead of running out of food and having to come back. In the Joplin, Missouri tornado our SATERN communications people were used by the local emergency responders because their communication system was down. We've set up locations where people can communicate with loved ones in another area to ensure them they're ok and relieve that anxiety."

How will the new Ford Transit be utilized once it's customized for service?

"This new vehicle will be a stand-alone, designed strictly for communications. Right now, they're using an old canteen that was converted to a communications vehicle. It was never specifically designed for communications. The current vehicle has been very high maintenance trying to keep it running. The new Transit will be much nicer and more reliable. We're finding out that since it's a specialty vehicle, it's more difficult finding someone to make the modifications. There are standards they have to meet, specialized wiring and conduit, precautions to keep interference away. The whole interior design is something like a quiet room, so you're not getting a lot of background noise. Some kind of insulation to eliminate outside noise. Storage areas for extra antennas. When requested, we can send this truck anywhere in the country to help people in disasters."

What's it like out there on a disaster scene?

"It's traumatic for a lot of people. I've had to deal with it for years, so you kind of get used to it. You have a support system within the fire service to help you deal with those situations. A big part of what we do in disaster services is what we call emotional and spiritual care. People go out there and obviously for the survivors and victims we're there for them, but we also have to look after the responders and ourselves. People just have to have a heart to help and they go out and at times they get overwhelmed. One example is Panama City, we sent people and it was total devastation with hundreds of thousands displaced. It's chaos and as you're trying to help people and it can be overwhelming. At any time, any person regardless of how much of a veteran they are, it can get to you. As leaders, we have to be aware of that and keep an eye on our people and our help. Make sure they are getting the opportunity to vent and discuss, and get emotional and spiritual care too."

View into back end of Salvation Army Transit van

What does a good day look like?

"A good day is when you've completed your mission. Everybody's been fed. They're well hydrated. We've provided clothing or bedding or shelter. And you know you've helped people and taken care of them. You have that sense of accomplishment."

Is it different working in the nonprofit world? Are there things the public doesn't understand?

"It's very different from government work, that's for sure. The main thing is that you're working based totally on donations. It's tough sometimes. At a government entity we collect a tax. As a fire chief, I can have a solid estimate of how much funding we're going to have. If we're going to have a good year on taxes, we can disseminate those funds appropriately. If there is going to be a shortfall we'd know that in advance. Here it's not like that. It depends on the economy and whether people can donate or not. In this day and age, with how expensive things are, I think people are frugal and I can understand that. It also comes down to a trust thing, who do you want to give your money to? People are skeptical of donating for certain situations because of some fraudulent things that have happened in the past. The Salvation Army is one of the most trusted not for profits. Hopefully, we can relieve some of that anxiety."

How important is support from companies such as Ford?

"It's extremely important. We're all in the same community. It's your community. Ford has been really awesome to The Salvation Army. I wish everybody had a caring heart as much as Ford does. It would help make the not for profit world a bit easier and we could help more people."

For more information on The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network visit

Group of Salvation Army workers in front of Salvation Army vehicle