During the planned PG&E shutdowns last month, during which the lights were turned off twice on the coast, many residents struggled to communicate with the outside world. In many cases, landline telephones, the Internet and cellular networks, as well as the power grid, were down.
To fill the gap, amateur radio or HAM operators relied on portable transceivers to connect with each other and with first responders.
Lee Copeland, a longtime member of the Half Moon Bay Amateur Radio Club, said about 20 to 25 HAM operators checked in with the county and each other throughout the day during the shutdowns.
“We painted a picture of who is in power, who is not, who is in trouble, which places were open or closed,” said Copeland. “It provided a situational snapshot.”
Amateur radio uses certain radio frequencies that operators can use to exchange messages. The Federal Communications Commission regulates the use of the frequencies.
Club President Harry Ysselstein stated that HAM radio operators are able to work closely with the Coastside Community emergency team when communicating with the neighborhoods.
“Ideally, there is at least one HAM radio operator embedded in every neighborhood,” said Ysselstein.
Such a system would allow a chain of command to deliver information from certain areas on the coast to a radio operator who can relay it to county or city officials. Government officials see the benefit.
“There is a need for HAM communications,” said town clerk and communications director Jessica Blair. “Depending on the severity of the situation, we would activate them as required in order to be able to communicate with neighborhoods and preserve the district’s resources.”
Ysselstein said HAM radio operators could use their radio equipment at the city’s emergency operations center to relay information from different parts of the city to city and district officials. As a representative of the HAM radio club, Ysselstein wrote to city officials after the shutdowns, reiterating the importance of the communication channels and asking to be involved in the next activation of the EOC in an emergency.
At the Half Moon Bay City Council meeting on November 5th, members of the amateur radio club discussed the potential for better communication in an emergency. According to Ysselstein, Coastside’s HAM radio operators are working to partner with local radio station KHMB to share real-time information with residents of the community in emergencies.
First responders say the service that HAM radio operators provide is invaluable.
“There are times when nothing else works,” said Ari Delay, chief of the coastal fire-fighting district battalion.
Delay, who is also chief of the La Honda fire department, said he activated the CERT and HAM radio operators to aid communications during the outages.
“The entire coast is fragile from a communication standpoint,” said Delay. “… (because of HAM radio) we had a pretty good eye on the pulse of the open streets, the status of the situation (and) we were able to monitor it closely.”
According to the Hay operator, Delay occupied the fire station with phone calls, radio reports and inspection reports during the planned safety shutdown events. He said the radio operators and CERT members have been trained to receive emergency calls and provide the necessary information to first responders.
With only 14 firefighters on staff, Delay says it’s vital that employees are on site to help emergency responders prioritize calls.
Kevin Rose, director of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Ambulance, reiterated the importance of having a basic method of sharing information. He said during the shutdowns the Office of Emergency Services set up a network that HAM radio operators could use to connect and test with them throughout the day.
“It plays two roles. It’s a hobby for radio enthusiasts to communicate, and it’s a powerful resource and emergency management tool that provides redundancy in communication, “said Rose. “… It will be more organized when many cities include HAM operators in their emergency protocols.”