Former radio amateurs are essential communicators in the earthquake preparedness exercise


At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Skip Fedanzo was expecting an 8.0 earthquake on the Hayward fault. Assuming his house in Corte Madera doesn’t go down Ring Mountain, Fedanzo was about to walk past his cell phone, laptop, and landline, heading to his garage for the only method of communication he can rely on. to always work – a radio ham.

Sitting in his rocking chair, at a window with a view stretching from Mount Tamalpais to the bay, Fedanzo’s plan causes him to press the power button to announce, “It’s Skip, KJ6ARL; Is anyone there? ”This provides a response from some or all of Novato’s 15 ham operators spread out at Point Reyes Station – and Operation Golden Eagle, a world-wide emergency response exercise. region, will be broadcast.

The simulation involves five counties in the Bay Area, where emergency service professionals exchange requests for information and resources after the alleged disaster. But only Marin among the five counties works without the Internet or cell phone. Instead, Marin employs a network of amateur radio amateurs who call themselves radio communications volunteers. Acting under the supervision of the Marin County Public Works Department, RCV provides vital communications between the Emergency Operations Center and community organizations serving the most vulnerable residents.

The aim is to have the RCV certified by the county supervisory board as part of its official emergency response. The idea is that early 20th century technology – antenna to antenna, without the use of cell phone towers, satellite dishes, or cables – will be a vital tool when 21st century technology stops working, which Fedanzo says. ‘wait for it to happen when the real disaster strikes.

“America’s weak underbelly is that we are too dependent on gadgets and gadgets,” said Fedanzo, 77, a retired software engineer who trained as a radio operator while serving as a navy during the Vietnam War. “The more complex the systems, the more likely they are to fail. “

This became evident in October 2019 when PG&E activated a five-day power cut for public safety in Marin County to prevent wildfires from starting in unusually dry and windy conditions.

“They flip the switch and the first thing that goes off is the internet,” said Milt Hyams, ham operator from San Rafael, 78, a retired county attorney who also served in Vietnam, as a captain in Vietnam. the Army Signal Corps. “Then, after a few days, the batteries in the cell towers started to run down and you could no longer use cell phones. It was kind of a shock and an eye opener for people.

Hyams and Fedanzo both worked this outage as volunteers with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Operations Center. In the process, they launched the idea of ​​building a county-wide communications network using battery-powered radios and a signal relay at the top of Mount Tam. This was the start of Radio Communications Volunteers, RCV in the heavy acronym code used by amateur radio operators.

In their lingo, RCV provides a service to VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), which is affiliated with EOC (Emergency Operations Center) in cooperation with RACES / ACS (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services / Auxiliary Communications Services). These aren’t truckers with smart handles killing time on their CB radios. All 16 RCV operators have been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and call letters have been issued.

“It’s KJ6ARL, ask for a radio check,” Fedanzo said during a recent training day. He was sending a test signal to Hyams, who was parked in his Jeep Wrangler in Fedanzo’s driveway. “It’s KM6ASI, checking in,” Hyams replied, picking up the signal. His Jeep door bears the Marin Amateur Radio Society logo with the word “communications” in bold white type.

Above its left tail light is an antenna as long as those used for older FM radios. “Keeping it simple is our watchword,” Hyams said. “In a real emergency, going on air can be as easy as throwing a wire over a tree branch to serve as an antenna. So you don’t need a Jeep.

RCV is a second response unit, after firefighters and law enforcement who use a separate radio frequency, Marin Emergency Radio Authority.

“We’re not going to put on Superman suits and go out looking for destroyed buildings and power lines and bandage people,” Fedanzo said. “Any immediate response will be processed before we are activated. We are mobile phone booths offering long-haul support.

For Wednesday’s test, Fedanzo was chosen to be the network control operator for RCV, coordinating the hams. Each has been assigned a community organization, to which they are expected to transport all of their equipment by car, bicycle or on foot, depending on how seriously they view the scenario of an 8.0 – 8.0 earthquake is. more than 10 times the scale of Loma Prieta in 1989 and could make roads unnecessary. Once RCV arrives at a site and establishes a pipeline to the emergency operations center, the amateur radio guys relay requests for information and resources.

Operation Golden Eagle is a one-day exercise. But RCV can last much longer. Fedanzo keeps four days of battery life, plus a portable generator with a five-gallon gasoline can to charge into his Acura sedan as it descends from Ring Mountain and into the disaster area.

He has not forgotten that after the Loma Prieta earthquake, it took him 20 hours to return from Cupertino, 100 kilometers away. Hyams also has not forgotten his experience from that day, October 17, 1989. He was in the Marin Civic Center District Attorney’s office at 5:04 p.m. when “all those law books started to fall off the shelves and to hit me on the head. He said. He escaped into a hallway and encountered a county administrator who recruited him locally for the Emergency Operations Center.

It took 32 years to get to RCV, and Hyams is ready for the test. He timed the 15-minute ride to the emergency center north of San Rafael. Once there for the Wednesday exercise, he will serve as a dispatcher for hams from service organizations such as Community Action Marin, the Canal Alliance, the San Francisco-Marin County Food Bank and others.

“What Milt and I are doing is using our life experience and our knowledge of radio to help people communicate when they can’t otherwise,” Fedanzo said.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samwhitingsf


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