HAM radio operators seek greater role in emergencies

Kim Noyes

Coastside volunteers work to improve outreach

  • Nov 13, 2019 Updated Nov 13, 2019
image-ham radio
La Honda Fire sponsored South Coast CERT team, SC4ARES Ham radio members and firefighters stand vigilant at the La Honda Fire DOC. Photo courtesy La Honda Fire Department

During last month’s planned PG&E shut-offs, which turned out the lights on the Coastside on two occasions, many residents had trouble communicating with the outside world. In many cases, landline phones, internet and cell service were down as well as the electric grid. 

To fill the void, amateur radio or HAM operators relied on hand-held transceivers to connect to each other and to first responders. 

Lee Copeland, a longtime member of Half Moon Bay’s amateur radio club, said that during the shut-offs about 20 to 25 HAM operators were checking in with the county and with each other throughout the day. 

“We painted a picture of who’s got power, who doesn’t, is anybody in trouble, what places were open or closed,” Copeland said. “It provided a situational snapshot.” 

Amateur radio works by using designated radio frequencies that allow operators to exchange messages. The Federal Communications Commission regulates the use of the frequencies. 

Club president Harry Ysselstein explained HAM radio operators were able to work closely with the Coastside Community Emergency Response Team in communicating to the neighborhoods. 

“Ideally, you have at least one HAM radio operator embedded in each neighborhood,” Ysselstein said. 

Such a system would allow for a chain of command to supply information from certain areas on the Coastside to a radio operator who can transmit that to county or city officials. Government officials see the utility.

“There is a need for HAM communication,” said City Clerk and Communications Director Jessica Blair. “We would activate them as needed, depending on the severity of the situation, to be able to communicate with neighborhoods and to receive county resources.” 

Ysselstein said HAM radio operators could utilize their radio equipment at the city’s Emergency Operations Center to disperse information from different neighborhoods to city and county officials. Representing the HAM radio club, Ysselstein wrote city officials in the wake of the shut-offs, reiterating the importance of communication channels and asked to be included the next time the EOC is activated in an emergency.

At the Nov. 5 Half Moon Bay City Council meeting, members of the amateur radio club talked about the potential for better communication in emergencies. Ysselstein said Coastside HAM radio operators are working to engage with local radio station KHMB to share real-time information with community residents during emergencies as well.

Emergency first responders say the service HAM radio operators offer is invaluable.

“There are times when nothing else works,” Coastside Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Ari Delay said.

Delay, who is also the chief of the La Honda Fire Brigade, said he activated the CERT and the HAM radio operators during the outages as a way to assist with communication. 

“The whole Coastside is fragile from a communication standpoint,” Delay said. “…(because of HAM radio) we had a pretty good eye on the pulse on what roadways were open, the status of the situation, (and) we could closely monitor it.” 

During the planned safety power shut-off events, Delay said HAM operators were staffing the fire station taking phone calls, radio and walk-in reports. He said the radio operators and CERT members are trained to receive emergency calls and get the necessary information relayed to first responders. 

With only 14 firefighters on staff, having people on the ground to help responders prioritize calls is vital, according to Delay. 

San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services Manager Kevin Rose echoed the importance of having a grassroots method of sharing information. He said, during the shut-offs, the Office of Emergency Services set up a network for HAM radio operators to connect to and checked with them throughout the day.

“It plays two roles. It is a hobby where radio enthusiasts can communicate and it’s a strong resource and tool with emergency management providing communication redundancies,” Rose said. “…It’s becoming more organized with a lot of cities incorporating HAM radio operators into their disaster emergency response protocol.”