A military institution designed to provide emergency communications has moved to new quarters in the Pentagon. On October 21, John G. Grimes, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration, cut the ribbon on the new Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) station, now located on the fifth floor of the Pentagon. The facility -- manned by the Pentagon Amateur Radio Club (PARC) -- is packed with amateur radios, radio-telephone patches, computers and data links. "This is a great facility, manned totally by volunteers," Grimes told the crowd who came to see the new station. "It's a crucial capability for our country."
MARS, which began in the early 1950s, started as a worldwide network of shortwave radio enthusiasts who would spring into action in the event of a nuclear war or natural disaster. Thousands of civilian and military ham radio volunteers manned the system. With service members deployed far from home, or even overseas, MARS provided health and welfare messages called MARSgrams, allowing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to keep in touch with their families back home. Today, those shortwave broadcasts have been superseded by the Internet; many service members use cell phones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to speak with loved ones.
In the event of an emergency, high-frequency communication is generally the first to recover, and even the most modern technology can get overloaded. At the ribbon cutting ceremony, PARC member Allan Hubbert, KH6ILR, noted that there were communication problems during President Barack Obama's inauguration earlier this year: "During the inauguration, there were so many people on cell phones that it system was overloaded. We [hams] could still operate, and we helped back up the system down on the [National] Mall." More than 60 volunteers help to man the Pentagon MARS station.
With more than 6000 volunteers worldwide serving Army MARS, Air Force MARS and Navy-Marine Corps MARS, the system now backs up the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "There have been many crises or disasters that have struck where the first word out of an area is via [Amateur Radio], and someone has their little gas generator going," Grimes said. "That's not likely to change any time soon." -- Thanks to the Department of Defense for some information