PUNXSUTAWNEY — It all began with CB radios, and now celebrating its 35th anniversary, the Punxsutawney Radio Emergency Associated Communications Team (REACT) has become one of the premiere volunteer safety organizations in Punxsutawney and around the world.
It has been 35 years since Ken Haynes and Bill Murray first established what was known back then as Punxsutawney Radio Emergency Services (PRES), which would later become REACT.
Charlie Hoeh, REACT member, said the club originally began in 1976 by monitoring Citizens Band (CB) Radio Channel 9 for motorist emergencies.
Hoeh said he was into CB radios since he was a teenager and received his first walkie-talkie when he was 12 years old. His dad bought him and his brother, Tom, walkie-talkies so he could keep in touch with them when they were out riding their bicycles.
“We even had them taped to the handlebars so we could talk while we were riding,” Hoeh said.
His name — or handle — was “Deacon,” which he still uses today.
PRES set up a radio room above the current Walker Auto Parts, where club members monitored Channel 9 around the clock. Their main purpose was to assist motorists who ran of gas in the Punxsy area.
Hoeh said visitors from out of town would travel into the area, but all the gas stations closed at 5 p.m. Saturday.
When motorists would run out of gas, PRES members would hear the distress call on Channel 9 that someone needed assistance. Members would store gasoline in five gallon cans and respond to the scene with free gas.
Hoeh said members then began responding to accident scenes to assist the police and fire departments. From there, Haynes sought information about PRES joining REACT International.
REACT provides public service communications to individuals, organizations and government agencies to save lives, prevent injuries and give assistance wherever and whenever needed.
Hoeh said the Punxsy group became chartered with REACT and changed its name, which was easier to remember.
Murray said the group took off after meeting with Michael Honkus, who, at the time, was the captain of Punxsutawney-based Pennsylvania State Police.
“We met with him and explained everything we had to offer, and they were really happy to see us,” Murray said.
At that time, he said, the state police had a small number of troopers in the Troop C area, and in the 1970s, state police communications weren’t very good. Many times, while troopers were on an accident scene, REACT would direct traffic.
PSP Sgt. Tom Chelgren said REACT has been an indispensable asset in so many ways to all law enforcement officials. Whether it’s a pre-planned event, such as Groundhog Day, or an emergency scene, state police count on REACT members to set up perimeter control.
REACT members also relieve state police personnel so troopers can perform functions that are more law enforcement related, he said.
“They’re very professional in their approach,” Chelgren said. “We always enjoy working with them, and for being a community-based organization that receives no direct pay benefit, they’re to be extremely lauded for their efforts.”
Punxsutawney Borough Police Chief Tom Fedigan said he has been affiliated with REACT for the entire 19 years that he has worked as a borough police officer, including the last eight-and-a-half as chief.
“Since I’ve been the chief, I’ve worked with them directly, and I think many people take them for granted,” he said.
Working with borough police, REACT assists in both emergency and non-emergency situations, such as school events, including graduation, the Variety Show, football games and parades.
“These folks are not under my direction most of the time or helping me out specifically,” Fedigan said. “They’re on their own, and they do a fantastic job.”
Fedigan said that all the members have undergone training, especially in traffic control.
“That’s their speciality, that’s what they do, that’s what they’re trained to do, and they do it very well,” Fedigan said. He said this saves Punxsutawney some money, because extra police officers aren’t needed for some events.
Hoeh said obtaining an ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio frequency changed the group completely. UHF was more private, as when REACT was on CB channels, people would deliberately key up their microphones so that the club members could not communicate with each other.
All REACT teams in the United States now have their own UHF access channels.
Hoeh said state Rep. Sam Smith has been a big help by assisting with obtaining grant funding, which has helped REACT purchase more and better radio equipment.
Grant money three years ago through Smith also helped purchase a new camper-trailer for REACT’s Safety Breaks, which first began at the County Line Restaurant in a four-by-eight-foot wooden shed.
Murray said REACT’s Safety Break is its signature event, held over holiday weekends at Nelson’s Mini-Mart.
Hoeh said several members of REACT are also SKYWARN observers, who provide essential information for all types of weather hazards. The main responsibility of a SKYWARN spotter is to identify and describe severe local storms.
Murray said that most people aren’t aware of everything that REACT is involved with, which includes dealing with hazardous materials.
REACT also works with the Punxsutawney Area Coalition Against Drugs; Rotary Club; Lions Club; the Salvation Army; and the Red Cross.
REACT President Doug Ritchey said the group is important to the community because its members are on call 24-7, no matter what the situation.
“It’s not so much as what we do, but how we fill in the gaps” — for the school district, police department and more, Murray said.
Hoeh said REACT receives no tax dollars and is run on 100 percent donations. It is a 501(c)-3, tax-exempt organization.
REACT has come a long way in 35 years, he said, when it was first known as a group of “wet-nosed ambulance chasing kids. We don’t chase ambulances. We’re called to help and serve.”