Army MARS program still going strong
By Thom Williams
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. (Army News Service, July 17, 2006) - Mention the MARS Station to retired service members and they'll probably tell you about how they were able to talk with loved ones back in the United States while serving overseas through this system of phone patches, high-frequency radios and volunteer radio operators.
The U.S. Army Military Affiliated Radio System is still going strong with morale and welfare phone-patching and MARS messages. Today, it's also a critically important backup emergency-communications system.
"MARS has evolved into emergency-communications support not just for the Army, but for other government agencies, as well," said Kathy Harrison, chief of the Army MARS, which is part of the U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Army Signal Command at Fort Huachuca.
The Army MARS system operates 24-7, and participates in the National Communications Systems Shared Resources High Frequency Radio Program, a system designed to bring together federal, state and private-industry HF resources so emergency messages can be passed when normal communications channels are destroyed or unavailable.
Government agencies involved in the program include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
During Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Fort Huachuca MARS Station relayed messages that could not be passed in the affected area because the communications infrastructure was destroyed.
"We'd call in a rescue mission to the Coast Guard, and they would then dispatch the helicopters in New Orleans and rescue people," said Grant Hays, contract project manager and eastern area MARS coordinator.
Along with voice traffic, MARS can pass large files with bulk information, such as patient or supply lists, via computers.
MARS is made up of 2,500 member stations in the continental United States. Only 270 are military stations; the rest are civilian-volunteer stations. MARS relies almost exclusively on volunteer operators who donate time and buy their own equipment to make the system work.
"We have volunteers who have invested hundreds of thousand of dollars in communications gear," Hays said. "One volunteer has his own trailer and participates in the Grecian Firebolt signal exercise as a MARS player."
Equipment and antennas at the Fort Huachuca MARS Station also serve as training aids for 11th Signal Brigade Soldiers.
"We help Soldiers here at Fort Huachuca when it comes to knowing about HF communications and antennas," he said. "All our antennae work here is done by a team on post, and they get a lot of training just by using these towers to climb and repair the antennas."
The NETCOM/9th ASC manages two gateways for HF radio traffic into and out of the continental United States. Fort Huachuca takes care of the Western U.S. and Pacific connectivity, and Fort Dietrick, Md., houses the Eastern gateway into the U.S.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps founded MARS in November 1925 under the name "Army Amateur Radio System." It was shut down during World War II because of security concerns and later reemerged as Army MARS.
Hays predicts a bright future for MARS.
"I see a pretty good picture because of our involvement with emergency communications, and we can provide a service to both government agencies and non government agencies, he said.
For more information on MARS visit the official website.
(Editor's note: Thom Williams writes for the Scout at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.)