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In a Disaster Your Phone Might Not Work, But a Ham Radio Will

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By Kelly Servick | KUSP News

At the Santa Cruz county emergency operations center, tucked into the grounds of the DeLaveaga Golf Course, Allen Fugelseth sits at a microphone in front of a radio transceiver the size of a mini-fridge, waiting for his turn. Voices from other radio operators sound off with their locations in emergency operations centers around the state: Siskiyou EOC; Santa Clara County EOC; Solano County EOC…

Fugelseth’s turn comes up and  he says: “QW, WB6RWQ at the mic.”

The net control station in San Bernardino County responds: “Thank you very much, Allen. Copy you a good solid 5 at this station.”

Allen Fugelseth sits next to the ham radio at the Santa Cruz emergency operations center. Photo: Kelly Servick

Allen Fugelseth sits next to the ham radio at the Santa Cruz emergency operations center. Photo: Kelly Servick

Every Wednesday, the station in San Bernardino County leads a roll call of emergency centers in the state. “A good solid 5” means a clear signal, able to send and receive messages in case of an emergency. Fugelseth isn’t an employee of Santa Cruz emergency services, though. He’s a volunteer… and a ham.

“That’s a very old designation for amateur radio operators,” he says.

A Radio Community

In the early 1900s, hobbyists broadcasting outside professional radio frequencies were described as hams – an old insult used for incompetent actors. Now hams have embraced the term, forming a community of operators licensed by the FCC. Some just want to make contact and socialize with other hams, but many, like Fugelseth, also use their skills to transmit during an emergency.

Power goes down, the cell tower goes down and then you have tens of thousands of devices that are sitting idle because there’s no signal being fed to them,” he notes. “Where the amateur radio operator can just pick his equipment and then drive down the road, portable, and then sit there and operate.”

The room next to the transceiver is the hub where county government and organizations like the Red Cross would gather. Members of ARES, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, would work in shifts, sending messages to hams on the ground, in hospitals, shelters and schools. There are about 170 people on the amateur radio emergency service roster for Santa Cruz, creating a network of volunteer support. Charles “Cap” Pennell is their emergency coordinator.

With our network on the air,” Pennell says, “we can all kind of hear what each other is doing that that’s encouraging to us. It makes us want to be part of that group, and that’s useful.”

Radio Works When Phone and Internet Fail

The group has made itself useful in various emergencies over the years. When the sabotage of underground fiber optic cables left southern Santa Clara county without phone service in 2009, Pennell and other volunteers relayed hospital food and supply orders. And when a 7,000 acre wildfire broke out later that year in the Santa Cruz mountains, hams helped coordinate the transport of hundreds of large animals to safety. Other times, the volunteers help by simply broadcasting what’s going on in their neighborhoods, what Pennell calls the “ground truth.”

“It helps people understand what’s going on in places other than their own just because they hear it all on the radio.”

Operators might describe rising water levels or storm damage on the coast. That’s what Pennell did in 2011.

“They said ‘tsunami watch,’ he says with a chuckle. “So we all went down and watched the tsunami.”

Across the country, skilled hobbyists are still using this old technology for new emergencies. For this close-knit group, the job consists of a few emergencies, and a whole lot of uneventful Wednesday mornings in between. Pennell says he and his fellow hams are motivated by a love of the technology itself.

“It feels good to be able to help out whoever would like our help with communications, but mostly we are here to have fun. Really that’s the key, we have to have fun with it in order to be any good at it over time, takes routine operation.”

Pennell is optimistic that the charm of this medium will keep people on the amateur airwaves – and in the emergency communications loop – for another century.

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