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Not-So-Amateur Radio

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 (Photo Credit: Amanda Font/KQED)

When devastating fires ravaged North Bay communities last fall, many communication devices and services proved inadequate to the need. Mike Von der Porten has this Perspective on one that did not.

Last October, devastating fires roared from Calistoga to Santa Rosa. Sadly, many people perished and many, many more homes were lost.

Much has been made of the difficulties and failures in spreading the word so citizens could get ready and get out safely. People dropping their land lines, turning off their cell phones, not signing up for alerts such as Nixle and other alerts, and dropping their use of traditional media all contributed to the problem.

What worked, though, was amateur radio.

The red flag warnings had been posted long in advance. The TV news already had fire reports. Amateur radio operators around Sonoma County turned on their radios and a Fire Net was established. Operators reported first-hand observations, relayed information gleaned from fire and law enforcement frequencies, and shared their Nixle and other notifications.


Some of the most valuable information came from a ham on the mountains to the west of the Sonoma County Airport. Joe, K6AWA, had a direct view of the progress of the fire down the Porter Creek/Mark West Springs Roads.

Those of us listening in knew early on that "this could be our Oakland Hills Fire." We had time to turn cars around, pack, get our family members up and then knock on doors up and down our streets. Our evacuations were orderly and well thought-out. We knew immediately as the fire progressed, as it jumped highway 101 and approached our own neighborhoods.

After the evacuations, hams provided communications at shelters, police departments, and the Emergency Operations Center. Hams also volunteered at shelters and other locations.

The FCC calls this class of service “amateur.” The actions of the operators were anything but “amateur.”

It is easy to get started in amateur radio. Radio clubs offer free training. The fees and starting equipment can be had for less than $100. Volunteers called "Elmers" are available to help new hams for free. Sure, you have to be a bit "techy" and interested in emergency preparedness, but getting into ham radio is easy.

The next time there is a fire, a flood, an earthquake or other disaster you don't have to be unprepared. Join the amateur radio community: We'll be glad to have you!

With a Perspective, I'm Mike Von der Porten, AD6YB.

Mike Von der Porten helps businesses with their one and five-year planning processes.

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