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Local News

Ham Radios Serve as Powerful Tool During Emergency Outages

Operators say the technology succeeds when conventional methods fail in disaster situations.

Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club board members Harry Rouse, left, and Bill Talanian and organization president Michael Ditmore gather at the headquarters for the American Red Cross, Santa Barbara County Chapter. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

Power outages caused by the Gap Fire have disrupted servers, killed routers and shut off televisions. Yet the solution to the recent communications problems may lie in an old technology: ham radio.

“When people are being evacuated, without any electricity, a lot of times all they have is the emergency AM radio,” said Michael Ditmore, president of the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club, an 80-year-old organization with about 120 members.

Indeed, where conventional methods have failed in emergency situations, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, amateur radio has stepped in to coordinate rescue and relief efforts. The technology does not depend on power lines that can be destroyed or sites that can overload. Moreover, ham radio operators most likely are experts in the technology and are skilled and passionate about radio communications.

“We’re electronics engineers, really,” Ditmore said. “We’re just a bunch of geeks.”

Geek or no, ham radio operators are as close as your neighbor’s basement and as far as a shuttle in space. Even NASA requires a license in radio operations for the astronauts they send into space. Ham operators range from the newbie with a walkie-talkie to the most sophisticated gearhead who can build his own antennae.

For Ditmore, who operates a station out of his home, his truck and the American Red Cross, Santa Barbara County Chapter headquarters, 2707 State St., it’s a no-brainer that Santa Barbara should have its own station for times such as these, when people need information and may not be able to get it because of a lack of electricity.

“A lot of people’s frustration is just about getting timely information out,” Ditmore said. “Putting it up on a kiosk doesn’t quite work anymore.”

To that end, he and SBARC are gearing up to make an offer to the city of Santa Barbara for its own AM emergency radio station — a roughly $50,000 gift that could broadcast messages from downtown Santa Barbara all the way to Goleta. Places such as Montecito and Painted Cave already have AM stations.

“In an emergency, all you would have to do is use your walkie-talkie or car radio and tune into that frequency and pick up the latest information,” he said.

Bill Tefft is vice president of emergency services for the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club and head of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

The SBARC has made that offer before, in the wake of last year’s Zaca Fire, but the proposal died because of an apparent lack of interest.

It’s not to say that the way emergency services personnel are handling the ongoing Gap Fire is inadequate, Ditmore said. Quite the opposite, he said.

“Our firefighters fight fires well. Police officers uphold justice well. Emergency medical personnel handle sick or injured people well,” Ditmore said.

“All of those people use radio communications but they’re not very good at that part of it,” he said, explaining that oftentimes their communications can break down and need to be backed up by someone who knows the technology. Moreover, in times of disaster, emergency personnel are usually preoccupied by more urgent tasks.

“Making their radios work is not exactly their No. 1 priority,” Ditmore said.

Essentially, Ditmore said, when communication links break or need backup, volunteers from SBARC, a group affiliated with the national Amateur Radio Emergency Service, often act as an extra set of eyes and ears for the local emergency operations center, a service they performed just recently because of the Gap Fire.

Members also would like to contribute the use of their repeater system, an existing network of stations, several of which also double as weather stations.

“They cover a small geographic area, but it’s important to the people in that area, if they learn to use it and trust it,” said SBARC board member Bill Talanian, who has built and maintained this network.

That’s not the only trick these radio people have up their sleeves. Even before the Internet was popular (Internet TCP/IP technology is based on packet radio protocols used by ham operators), these self-proclaimed geeks are cooking up ideas that could have the old school technology revolutionizing new media.

“My dream is for every ham radio operator with a laptop to be able to send and receive e-mails on the Internet by radio,” said SBARC board member Harry Rouse, explaining that with radio technology, modems and routers reliant on electricity and telephone lines wouldn’t be needed. “It can be done.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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