Emergency Communications Conference Trains Stake Specialists

Contributed By By Jerry Wellman, Church News

  • 20 August 2013

Elder Doug Reneer, left, a Church-service missionary with the Church Welfare Department, stands with Kevin Hemsley, emergency communications specialist with the Idaho Falls Bishops’ Storehouse.  Photo by Jerry Wellman.

Article Highlights

  • Some 400 people attended an emergency communications conference on the BYU–Idaho campus in Rexburg, Idaho, on August 10.
  • Preparedness topics included developing emergency plans for stakes, wards, and families.
  • Priesthood leaders need reliable ways to gather information with which to make decisions in times of disaster.

Saturday, June 5, 1976, is a day Joy Peterson of St. Anthony, Idaho, clearly remembers. It was the day the Teton Dam failed. She watched as farm machinery and livestock were washed away, yet her home, built in the late 1800s, was spared and her family was uninjured. 

On August 10, Sister Peterson, a licensed ham radio operator in the Twin Groves 2nd Ward, St. Anthony Idaho Stake, was among some 400 people who attended an emergency communications conference on the BYU–Idaho campus in Rexburg, Idaho. 

That Teton Dam incident, explained Doug Reneer, a Church-service missionary with the Welfare Department, was impetus for the Church to seek better ways that priesthood leaders could gather information and communicate Church needs in time of disaster. Elder Reneer was the keynote speaker during the emergency communications training conference, “ready 2 go,” sponsored by the Idaho Falls Bishops’ Storehouse.

A near-capacity gathering in the Taylor Building chapel listened as Elder Reneer, whose responsibilities in the Welfare Department include emergency communications for the Church, related how critical it is that priesthood leaders have reliable methods of gathering information with which to make decisions. He discussed the critical communications role of members who responded, for example, during Hurricane Katrina and during the Haiti earthquake.

In 1976, said Elder Reneer, emergency communications technology did not include cell phones or the Internet. In the days following the collapse of the Teton Dam, the Church relied on amateur (ham) radios and even Citizens Band. Today, however, he said stake and ward leaders have a great variety of communications tools that include satellite phones, Internet-based technology such as Skype and texting, as well as commercial communication resources. The key to effective communication, he said, includes simplicity and flexibility. He said that ham radio operators, where available, continue to provide the Church a simple and flexible resource in times of disaster when power outages often cause cell phones to fail or when normal communication methods are overwhelmed.

Many of the people gathered at the conference raised their hands when asked if they were licensed ham operators. Another group indicated they were actively seeking to become licensed. One young man, Kyle Judy, 14, of the Moorland 2nd Ward, Blackfoot Idaho West Stake, attended the day-long conference at the invitation of his bishop. Kyle explained that his bishop was eager to involve youth in his ward in emergency education and preparation. Justin Heib, a Young Men leader in the Moorhead Ward, accompanied Kyle. After they had attended several of the conference sessions, both expressed their desire to study and pursue a ham radio license.

The conference, under the direction of Kevin Hemsley, the emergency communications specialist for the Idaho Falls Bishops’ Storehouse, included two focus areas: a technical track for those seeking better ways to use radio skills in support of emergency response and a track for those wanting to focus on how to be better prepared.

Attendees of the communications conference gather in the Taylor Building chapel on the BYU–Idaho campus. Presenters spoke of the importance of gathering reliable information during times of emergency. Photo by Jerry Wellman.

Technical topics included state-of-the-art digital communications, setting up emergency stations, using power sources independent of commercial sources, types of equipment available, and on-the-air skills to enhance the ability to quickly send messages in and out of affected areas. 

Preparedness topics included developing emergency plans for stakes, wards, and families; using social media such as Facebook and Twitter; the role of Relief Society and Young Women in emergency response; and developing a spiritual “go kit” for responders and their families.

Jerri Shuey of the Missoula 3rd Ward, Missoula Montana Stake, attended to sharpen her preparedness skills. She became a licensed ham radio operator to share the hobby with her husband and found that she could be a ward resource for communication as well as to help teach emergency preparedness. She discovered how social media can help in the ward and was excited that “older folks” are learning this relatively recent Internet-based method of keeping informed.

Todd Smith, who served as a bishop in Rexburg and is currently a communications specialist for the Rexburg area, taught seminar participants skills to develop an emergency response kit. “It’s not a 72-hour kit,” he said, “but equipment needed during a specific emergency response.” Some of the considerations, he explained, include who will be using the equipment, what the equipment will be used to accomplish and where and how long it will be used. He detailed suggestions for various situations such as those that happen inside or outside and in good and adverse weather.

An emergency communications training conference sponsored by the Idaho Falls Bishops’ Storehouse focused on being prepared to respond. Photo by Jerry Wellman.

Continuing Elder Reneer’s explanation that the Church’s emergency communications effort is organized under priesthood authority and designed primarily to support stake presidents and bishops, Brother Hemsley discussed the Church’s emergency response communications system and how priesthood leaders can incorporate various technologies into stake and ward plans. Elder Reneer emphasized that it is priesthood leaders who, through inspiration for their local areas, determine the best methods needed to support communications needs during an emergency. Some needs, Elder Reneer and Brother Hemsley said, could include radios that do not require operator licenses, or they may choose to use text messaging or other forms best suited to a stake or ward’s geographic location.

One important consideration, said Elder Reneer, was that all involved be flexible to be most effective. He urged participants not to focus on one area of expertise but to use all available technology to support their priesthood leaders. The Church structure, he explained, allows local leaders to call welfare specialists, and this can include calling communications specialists, local members who are licensed radio operators and have radio equipment that could be used in times of emergency. Several seminar leaders also indicated that many radio operators, in addition to contributing their technical expertise, also served as emergency preparedness educators to encourage ward members in family preparedness efforts.

During the conference, several emergency radio stations were displayed to help others in preparing equipment to respond to disaster situations. Photo by Jerry Wellman

Kurt Welker, who served as bishop in the Ammon 25th Ward, Ammon Idaho Stake, discussed the need for families within a ward to be prepared as fires, power outages, weather, and other emergency situations often happen without advance warning. He discussed how his ward not only worked with members but also reached out to all those within the ward boundaries to develop a ward emergency plan, prepare 72-hour kits, and then test the response plan. He said response from the community was exciting as ward members worked with neighbors to teach and prepare.

Brother Welker then focused on spiritual preparation and discussed the need to be ready to receive personal revelation in times of emergency. He listed several suggestions, including repenting of things that “are not at peace in your life.” He encouraged participants to “truly forgive others,” always be temple worthy, and to “stand in holy places”—to not go places “He can’t go with you.” Receiving revelation is most needed, said Brother Welker, in our lives today. He referred to counsel from Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve that encourages doing all people can with their own efforts and allowing Heavenly Father to then assist them (see “In His Own Time, in His Own Way,” Ensign, Aug. 2013, 22–27).

Brother Hemsley expressed that attendance at the conference far exceeded his expectations as members traveled to Rexburg from throughout Idaho and parts of Utah, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Florida, Hawaii, North Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, and Canada.