City agencies and ‘Hams’ prepare for emergency service

Discover why Amateur Radio Operators are considered a vital link to keeping Portland functioning, even if all other lines of communication are down, as they get ready for ‘the big one’. And, check out links to the City’s websites providing loads of FREE emergency preparedness information …

Portland Office of Emergency Management’s Operations Manager, Mark Chubb, and Program Manger, Patty Hopkins, test out radios that can be used to communicate with Amateur Radio Operators around the area.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
According to geologists, Portland is due to be hit with a massive, destructive earthquake any time now. But, be it a temblor, flood, or man-made disaster, the folks in the Portland Office of Emergency Management (POEM) are working to help restore order, and provide basic services, until after life returns to normal.

Part of POEM’s plan relies on volunteers – both the Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) volunteers, and “Hams”, which is what amateur radio operators have been called for nearly a century now.

We got a behind-the-scenes look at a training exercise to coordinate the efforts of these citizen radio station operators a couple of weeks ago, at their communications headquarters in the Lents Neighborhood.

“In addition to training,” explained POEM’s Program Manager for Exercise & Training, Patty Hopkins, “today is really all about engaging our amateur radio operators, who could possibly be deployed in any kind of citywide emergency.”

The Portland Emergency Coordination Center is tucked away in part of the high-security Bureau of Emergency Communications complex. Hopkins showed us around . “Here, in our communications bay, we have many types of radios systems, including those used by Hams.”

A “Ham”, or amateur radio operator, is a person who is a licensed to operate their own transmitting and receiving stations from a clubhouse, their home – or even mobile rigs mounted in vehicles.

The developer of the City’s Emergency Coordination Center “go-kit”, Mark McKay, gets help setting up portable “radio-station-in-a-box” with NET volunteer and radio amateur Mark Nutcher. The system, small enough to be carried by an SUV or pickup truck, can be battery powered, providing more than three days worth of communications.

“Working with them is important,” Hopkins explained, “because amateur radio operators provide communication that never fails. They can help provide communication service that, in a large-scale emergency, helps us get word out to our emergency management teams.

It’s a critical redundancy in the City’s emergency communications systems, remarked Hopkins. “They can send or receive messages to us, communicate with one another, and pass information on to emergency responders.”

Going beyond dots and dashes
And, more than just sending out dot-and-dash Morse Code messages, most Hams use modern telecommunications equipment.

“Today’s radio amateurs,” pointed out the bureau’s Operations Manager, Mark Chubb, “are using more advanced digital systems, providing voice, live, streaming video and distant communications via satellite bounce. Voice is our predominant mode, but using digital packet technology, very similar to e-mail, they can help us pass routine messages, and keep voice bands available for more urgent messages.”

About 30 radio amateurs were scattered around the building, involved in various activities, Hopkins pointed out. “They come from the Radio Amateurs Civil Emergency Services and the Radio Amateur Emergency Services – two amateur radio programs.”

Randy Kane, interim emergency manager of Portland Water Bureau, shows off their high-tech communications trailer.

Water Bureau prepared to communicate
At this event, we were surprised to learn that the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) has built and maintains their own mobile Command & Communication trailer.

“Not a lot of people aware of this, but we run a 24-hour security dispatch,” said PWB’s interim emergency manager, Randy Kane.

“They run patrols out in the Bull Run watershed, at our reservoirs, and our Hydro-Parks,” Kane said. “In an emergency, if there is a major disruption in communication services, communication is important because having a continuing water supply is critical during an emergency; it’s one of the critical infrastructures. People can live for a good long time without food; but without water is a different matter.”

Free emergency preparedness information
POEM provides a wide variety of personal emergency preparedness safety information to help you, and your family, get ready for any major disaster situation. To learn more, see their website: CLICK HERE.

And, another good source of information – and an organization in which you can volunteer –the NET groups, located in most neighborhoods around East Portland. For more information on NET, see their official website: CLICK HERE.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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