Amateur radio operators with the Northern Alameda County Amateur Radio Emergency Services team received and recorded messages during an emergency drill earlier this year. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Amateur radio operators with the Northern Alameda County Amateur Radio Emergency Services team received and recorded messages during an emergency drill earlier this year. Photo: Emilie Raguso

By Camille Baptista

During a major disaster, vital communication lines can be destroyed or damaged when the city needs them most. A local amateur radio group serving hospitals, schools, and city governments in northern Alameda County then steps in to help get emergency messages across.

“If no one else can send it, we can send it,” said Bruce Carleton, emergency coordinator for Northern Alameda County Amateur Radio Emergency Services (NALCO).

The organization, operated by a team of more than 30 volunteers who meet monthly, will hold its annual field day Saturday, June 22, along with other amateur radio stations across the country. Under tents set up near the west entrance of the UC Berkeley campus — at the intersection of Center and Oxford streets — they will set up and test out their equipment, and community members will be able to ask questions and watch emergency action simulations.

“Historically, NALCO uses this day as an opportunity to exercise our preparedness,” Jordan Hayes, the radio organization’s president, said in an email. “NALCO members gather with their gear — radios, portable power, antennas, sun-shades, supplies — and deploy as we would in the event of an emergency.”

The volunteers set up early in the morning and start making contact with radio operators in surrounding areas such as El Cerrito and Oakland, Hayes said. They also practice sending messages over longer distances, to places like Southern California, Oregon, Hawaii, and even Michigan.

In a real emergency, volunteers might be alerted by an Automatic Packet Reporting System, a real-time digital alert platform. They would then join the NALCO radio voice net and deploy to emergency operations centers (EOCs), mobile operating positions (MOPs), fire stations, and neighborhood locations. The volunteers use mostly their own equipment — only some is provided by the city.

Nationally, the field day serves as a contest between amateur radio groups, the goal being to make as many contacts with other radios as possible. The group participates in voice contests via shortwave radio, the kind of radio communication that operates over high frequencies. Emergency response radios that follow the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) regulations, like NALCO radio, are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to communicate on certain frequencies that ordinary radio operators can’t use.

“Once we’ve ‘proved’ our mobilization, members spend the rest of the day working on individual projects such as solar power, digital communication modes, novel antenna designs (one year a member brought a helium baloon to raise his antenna high up into the air, increasing his range), and provide outreach to the community,” Hayes said.

In general, the team works with three different types of radio: old-fashioned voice radio, packet radio (in which they exchange messages through a kind of central server), and high-speed multimedia radio (HSMM).

HSMM is “basically Wi-Fi, except we’ve hot-rodded it using more power, using better antennas, and using more software,” Carleton said. “Instead of using wires, we’re sending it over the airwaves.”

The Berkeley City Council recognized the amateur radio station at its June 11 meeting and made its annual proclamation of Amateur Radio Week, which is June 16-22.

“This is a valuable group that actually provides us a wonderful service,” Mayor Tom Bates said at the meeting.

Photo: Emilie Raguso
Amateur radio operators with the Northern Alameda County Amateur Radio Emergency Services team at an emergency drill. Photo: Emilie Raguso

As a behind-the-scenes organization that is an integral part of the city’s emergency response system, the volunteers are always grateful for the City Council’s recognition.

“They’ve done it all these years, and they’ve always been really enthusiastic about it,” Carleton said.

He presented a brief history of the radio group at the council meeting, highlighting its role in helping relay emergency messages during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake aftermath and the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. In emergency situations across the United States, volunteer amateur radio operators are often relied on to help organizations like the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Carleton explained that, even if a city’s communications infrastructure isn’t broken in an emergency, it can be damaged if many people are trying to send messages at the same time.

“Tornadoes, fires, storms, ice and even the occasional cutting of fiberoptic cables leave people without the means to communicate,” according to a statement the group released about its upcoming field day. “In these cases, the one consistent service that has never failed has been amateur radio.”

When not responding to disasters, the volunteers enjoy being a presence in the community. They participate in activities like CPR Saturday, bicycle races and triathlons, and simulated emergency tests and preparation drills like the one organized by the Berkeley Community Emergency Response Team on April 29.

“It’s a great thing to volunteer to do,” Carleton said.

Camille Baptista is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She studies creative writing and human rights at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the Columbia Daily Spectator.

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Join the Berkeley-wide emergency drill April 27 (04.10.13)

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