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October 9, 2007 > Hams on radio

Hams on radio

Submitted By Justine Yan

A man walking around with an antenna "growing" out of his head may seem like a fantastic piece of some childhood memory. Yet, the grassy field in Fremont's Central Park is full of men and women who are speaking into handheld radios, huddled over computers, and walking around with radio antennas sticking out of their backpacks, resembling the big one set up in the middle of the "campsite." The sound and smell of sizzling hotdogs float in the air. Without a doubt, these Hams are real.

Amateur Radio operators, or "hams," use various forms of radio communication for public service. These volunteers hone their skills and form tight-knit communities during events such as the annual Field Day, organized by the South Bay Amateur Radio Association, which serves Fremont, Newark, and Union City. An entry-level ham radio license, issued by the Federal Communications Commission, is required for Ham radio operators all over the country, many of whom join national organizations such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES).

ARES is an organization formed to provide backup communications duty in the event of an emergency or disaster, when traditional lines of communication are disrupted. Hams operate on "Amateur Bands," radio frequencies that the Federal Communications Commission reserves for them.

Throughout the year, each local ARES affiliate sets up several emergency simulations. During the dates of these exercises (lasting for a few hours or an entire weekend), a scenario is announced, and the necessary protocol is enacted to pinpoint and smooth out any wrinkles. These events are usually coordinated by the local ARES organization, but each year, the national headquarters determine the scenario for a specific event called SET, the Simulated Emergency Test, which typically takes place in October.

But when will a disaster really occur? One of the most anticipated, and feared natural disasters for the Bay Area is a major earthquake. An earthquake along the Hayward fault is long overdue.

Hardworking firefighters are employed to save our lives, and our property, following a major disaster. The resources we have will be spread thin.

According to the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the first 72 hours after an earthquake are critical. Electricity, gas, water and telephones may not be operational and public safety services, such as the fire and police department, will be asked to handle the most serious situations first in the immediate aftermath.

Yet it is at the local level where people and their communities are hurt - physically, emotionally, and economically. Many cities around the Hayward fault line have already predicted the damage and disorder that will result from an earthquake and realize that the community needs to be a part of the solution. Fire departments train volunteer-run Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and teach PEP, Personal Emergency Preparedness, to provide people with skills they need to protect themselves. In a sense, the fire department is "recruiting" members to serve their own communities. And the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) will be out there as well, serving in the role of communication.

"The fire and police department have different radio frequencies that are not interfaced with each other," says Jeffrey Koger, the Emergency Coordinator of Fremont ARES. "Though there are ways of doing that, the process is usually quite complex. Amateur radio today fills a key void to expand their communications capacity in an emergency."

ARES is organized into national, sectional, district, and local levels of jurisdiction. Depending on the scale of the disaster, different levels of organization are activated as the highest unit of operation. In each level of jurisdiction, there is an Emergency Coordinator (EC) who directs the amateur radio operators under his or her control.

Still, the volunteers are self-starting people. In the event of a major earthquake, as soon as volunteers mitigate any problems at home, they check in on a designated frequency to confirm their availability. Next, ARES volunteers may show up with their radio kits at the local Emergency Operations Centers (EOC), or they will be assigned to a certain location on the call-in frequency. Volunteers go wherever they are needed and assigned. Some have designated posts, and will report to certain agencies, school districts, or local hospitals.

Ham radio communication, allows ARES to function when all else fails, one of the major advantages of this organization is that volunteers are always ready to adapt. The amount of resources and number of available volunteers is constantly changing, so flexibility is a must. Each volunteer owns their own equipment - installed in a vehicle and handheld radios as well.

To regularly check up on emergency preparation, volunteers also form a community by organizing a "net." On a set day each week, the radio operator in charge may ask questions such as, "Do you have your batteries charged?" and "Do you have your radio kit on your vehicle ready to go?" Each member is given an opportunity to answer on a set frequency.

Besides serving in the rare event of an emergency, ARES is like a pair of extra eyes to insure public safety. Volunteers are involved in day-to-day services, such as standing by during marathons so that injured bicyclists can receive immediate medical attention, and even brandishing handheld radios to help find a lost child.

A major earthquake may happen tomorrow, and hopefully, the public safety communications systems are prepared. In preparation for the worst possible scenario, however, ARES will serve as a strong backbone to communication.

The ARES handbook ends by saying, "It's symbiotic; these people need us, and we want to help. Now that all the necessary introductions have been made, the rest is easy, for we are indeed the experts in meeting communications requirements of every sort."

Amateur Radio License Class at Pacificon, followed by a special license test:

Sunday, October 14
8 am - 5 pm
San Ramon Marriott Hotel
2600 Bishop Drive
San Ramon, 94583
Class size is limited!
For more information, visit

Amateur Radio meetings:

Fremont Fire Administration Training Room
3rd Thursday of each month
7:30 pm
3300 Capitol Ave., Bldg "B"
Fremont, 94537

Emergency Operating Center of Newark City Hall
2nd Wednesday of each month
7 - 8:30 p.m.
Visit, or email:

Union City:
If interested, call (510) 471-1365, or visit

Fire Station #1 portables
Thursday, October 11
7:30 pm
North Gate - Park near building.
777 S. Main Street
Milpitas, 95035


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