Geoff Lomax during a recent CERT exercise using solar-powered GMRS equipment. Photo by Richard Perlman.

Berkeley is more prepared than many municipalities to face a major disaster such as an earthquake or fire, but until recently there was no infrastructure by which neighborhood disaster teams could communicate with each other if the power grid and internet went down.

Now, an emergency neighborhood communications system has been set up by a fledgling all-volunteer group called BeCERTAINN — Berkeley CERT & Inter Neighborhood Network. This group just celebrated its one-year anniversary, and is looking for more members so additional neighborhoods can be included and more services can be offered when the Big One arrives.

“I am the communications person for my neighborhood CERT, and it occurred to us that in an emergency we would have no way of knowing what is happening in other parts of the city,” said Geoff Lomax, a ham radio buff. He quickly began working with another ham operator in his neighborhood, Richard Perlman, to try and find a solution.

“We thought it would be nice if the neighborhoods could talk to each other, especially when the grid is down,” Lomax said. “There are many licensed hams in Berkeley, but it proved very difficult to actually get a significant number of people involved in this effort,” Perlman added. “It was even more difficult to attract new hams, due to fears about the level of knowledge required to pass the licensing test.”

But in true Berkeley fashion, the two persisted. They spent many hours researching a voice communication system that was easier to master than ham radio, and would work when the grid and internet were down. “We finally, after long debate and study, decided on GMRS — General Mobile Radio Service,” Perlman said. GMRS fit the pair’s criteria of being inexpensive; easy to use; reliable; and not requiring extensive or expensive licensing.

This city-wide communication system will connect neighborhoods by providing situational awareness; resource sharing; networking; and coordination of disaster information.

“The fact is, in a major disaster, it is likely that individual neighborhoods will need to rely on their own resources for an extended period of time,” Lomax said. Berkeley does not have enough staff to help every household in every neighborhood. Residents will be expected to survive on their own for the first few days or possibly even one week, depending on how severe the emergency is. Berkeley’s CERT program offers numerous trainings during the year, so that neighborhood groups can build their own expertise and capabilities before a disaster happens. BeCERTAINN works closely with the CERT program but is independent from it.

“Now that we have some general interest, our next step is to start developing the protocols necessary to make this network useful for our goals,” Perlman said. These include resource sharing among neighborhood groups; incident recording and forwarding to city agencies; and extended communications within a neighborhood where local communications are not working well, he said. So, for example, if one CERT group has a generator or extra tents or blankets, they could alert other neighborhood groups whose members might have medical or other needs.

The technology

Richard Perlman testing the solar backup system on the BeCEARTAINN repeater. Photo by Geoff Lomax

“GMRS radios are ideal for relatively short-distance, line-of-sight communications,” Lomax said.  GMRS is an FCC-licensed system that allows for a repeater network, so a transmission from one low-powered walkie-talkie radio located almost anywhere in Berkeley can be re-transmitted over the entire city and beyond. Lomax was recently able to send a GMRS message all the way from San Francisco to his house in Berkeley.

Best of all, the system operates on solar and battery power, so it should work even when the power grid goes down. The repeater is already set up on a rooftop in central Berkeley, and there are about 20 individuals representing about 20 CERT neighborhood groups who have radios and are affiliated with BeCERTAINN. The group holds weekly “net” radio sessions to practice the technique and test the equipment. “We do it to maintain a state of readiness, and by convention,” Lomax said, adding that weekly nets are a convention in the amateur radio world.

Lomax said that BeCERTAINN is looking for more CERT groups, as well as individuals, to join the network. “There are two types of people who approach us,” he said. “Some are with well-developed CERT groups, and others are folks in the community who have resources that could be useful in case of an earthquake.”

For example, one nurse has joined the group so that she can volunteer to help during an emergency. Participating in the network will allow her to know where her services are most needed. Gregory Clark, a licensed contractor at a Berkeley nonprofit agency, also signed up to help. “In case of an emergency, we could assist with houses that need to be boarded up or we could repair something like a broken water pipe,” said Clark, who works with Community Energy Services Corporation.

Easy to get involved

BeCERTAINN is not registered as a nonprofit yet, and so far Lomax and Perlman have put up most of the $2,600 needed to purchase the equipment that is now in use. They buy radios on eBay and refurbish them at a cost of about $60 each. The radios are then distributed to interested groups and individuals, some of whom pay BeCERTAINN back if they decide to stay involved in the network, and others keep them as loaners.

The licensing requirements are also pretty easy, Lomax said. “One reason we chose GMRS is that one can become licensed without taking an exam,” he said. “The FCC has a website where one can obtain a family license, which includes in-laws. We thought this was a big advantage because families could quickly get involved and train together.” A 10-year license costs $70, or $7 a year.

During both trainings and emergencies, there is one “controller” who serves as a dispatcher and manages the radio traffic. “This is standard procedure for radio communications, and is intended to ensure clear, concise and accurate information,” Lomax said.

During the large Berkeley PG&E blackout in November, the group demonstrated the resiliency of the system. “The repeater’s solar powered battery backup system kicked in and allowed seamless operation,” Lomax said. The group was also active on Aug. 1 during the National Night Out event, conducting a variety of exercises designed to simulate network operations during a disaster.

BeCERTAINN’s goal is to have “licensed individuals in every neighborhood with the skills and equipment to utilize the repeater network,” Lomax said. Right now the network mostly covers north and central Berkeley, but many areas of the city have not yet joined.

The group is also reaching beyond Berkeley to coordinate with other Bay Area groups that operate GMRS radio repeater systems. “The goal is to assure the availability of radio communications regardless of the severity or location of a disaster,” Lomax said.

Lomax and Perlman encouraged interested CERT team members and others interested in joining the network to email the organizers or fill out this form.

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...