More than four years after the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, and in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Lee and a small cadre of amateur radio junkies are preparing for the worst and having a great time doing it.
With concerns growing over the dangers posed by the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where shifting tectonic plates pose the risk of creating huge earthquakes along the western seaboard, Lee figures that when the inevitable strikes, people can either be part of the solution or part of the problem.
Guess which he is?
His Jeep is a mobile radio station for the survivalist set. Resting inside a locked metal briefcase, like a Russian nesting doll, is another locked metal box, all of which is chained to the back seat. Inside is a “terminal node controller,” a thin rectangular box that looks like a standard car radio but is actually a special piece of amateur radio equipment used to transmit signals around the globe.
His radio-outfitted rig ensures that when Mother Nature turns tempestuous, he and the other members of the Clatsop County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) will have the county covered.
“It doesn’t have to be a tsunami, either,” Lee says. “It could just be another storm.”
Ham radio operators — as amateurs are often called — like Lee — are a breed apart, says Jeff Holwege, Clatsop County’s volunteer emergency coordinator. They dedicate hours a week to fiddling with their radio gear and are identifiable by their over-air call signs, which they use in place of their names.
Lee’s call sign, also prominently displayed as his license plate number, is KD7IBA.
Jeff Holwege (call sign AB7DN) and his wife Roxann (AB7HO) are also evangelicals for ham radio. Aside from coordinating the county’s radio emergency service, they regularly teach free classes to people interested in receiving their licenses from the Federal Communications Commission.
They’re also the local coordinators for the ARES, the group of amateur radio operators who assist the county’s emergency management officials.
Scrutiny over the location of Seaside and Cannon Beach schools in the event of a tsunami has resonated with amateur radio operators, who say it’s yet another example of the growing desire among North Coast citizens to be prepared for the worst.
Both districts have schools located in tsunami zones, and there have been ongoing discussions about whether to build new facilities at higher locations.
Additionally, at the end of 2011 county commissioners voted to move forward with building a new emergency management facility at Camp Rilea. The facility will be equipped with a ham radio, which will be operated by volunteer members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service.
There’s strength in numbers, after all. With about 50 of the county’s 475 licensed amateur radio operators involved with the county’s emergency radio service, there’s a strong foundation of service in place.
“It’s one of the pillars of emergency management,” says Dean Perez, the county’s emergency management director.
And it’s a pillar built on time and dedication. That’s why earlier in the month, members of the emergency radio service received an award for being the most outstanding volunteer group in the county.
Folks like Jeff Holwege — several years retired after a long career with Boeing — spend around 20 hours a week on their hobby, with its wide range of real-world applications. A lot of that work now involves training the growing number of people interested in joining the ranks of amateur radio operators.
Interest in amateur radio spiked following the 2007 storms, Jeff Holwege says. Many people who had lost their phone lines and cell reception, along with their power, turned to ham radios and generators to get out of jams.
“It was the most eye-opening event for county and city leaders to really understand what we can do,” he says. “When the storm hit, it gave them an understanding of what our capabilities are.”
Volunteer members of the emergency radio service were the ones who finally hunted down the county’s Federal Emergency Management Administration case number following the storms, says Greg Filliger (call sign N7RIA).
After the storm hit and cellphone reception disappeared, Cannon Beach was completely cut off.
Filliger lives along U.S. Highway 26, near milepost 3, and he got a call from the county’s emergency operations center asking him to man a radio for Cannon Beach at the county’s emergency operations center. But water along the highway prevented him from making it to the Clatsop County Jail, where the makeshift emergency operations center was located, so he made the treacherous and long trek back to the Cannon Beach Fire Department. Once there, Filliger used his radio’s high frequency band to get in touch with Oregon Emergency Management, which relayed his message back to FEMA.
Within minutes, the county was in contact.
“We can actually be the only voice heard sometimes,” Filliger says.
The reason for that lies in FCC regulations that give broad authority to amateur radio operators — who can broadcast around the world, if they chose to do so and have the proper equipment — while at the same time restricting the radio spectrum on which government agencies broadcast.
Tom Manning, the county’s emergency services coordinator, says the FCC licenses state and federal agencies with short-range spectrums dedicated to a specific geographical area.
“Amateur radio operators don’t just do line of sight transmissions, though” Manning says. “They have very high frequencies.”
And all it takes anymore, he adds, is a computer, some speakers, a microphone and software to get started.
If it weren’t for ham radio operators, Karl Hauer would probably be dead. While hunting with his brother Dan at Simmons Field near Oregon Highway 202, his gun accidentally discharged into him. The bullet pierced his chest and his jaw but missed his vital organs.
Karl Hauer was bleeding profusely and he and his brother were out of cellphone range. His brother Dan, however, had a ham radio on him, and he was able to make a distress call. Someone in Gearhart got the call on a repeater and was able to make another call to the hospital. With time a critical factor, an ambulance was able to find the felled hunter within minutes.
That’s only one example of ham radio saving a life, Roxann and Jeff Holwege say.
When the couple was living in Washington during the mid-1990s, they received what sounded like a distress call come over the radio: A young man who was driving along logging roads in the Cascades had gotten lost and stuck in snow. He sounded panicked, Jeff Holwege says, and he didn’t know where he was.
Using a map and the scant bits of information the stranded man provided him — such as a rough idea of which road he took — Jeff Holwege was able to make a call to emergency responders.
The stranded man was rescued off the mountain within a few hours. More important than that, he was unharmed, Jeff Holwege says.
It doesn’t take long for things to go sideways, he says, which people learned during the 2007 storms.
“Around here, there’s a lot of people who decided after that storm to get licensed,” Jeff Holwege says. “They know it can save their lives or the lives of the people they’re responsible for.”
Emergency management professionals view it more of when than if a cataclysmic earthquake, devastating tsunami or another monster storm will bash the North Coast.
In Clatsop County, especially in its southern portions, emergency preparedness has become a near-constant discussion topic. In Seaside, those discussions have centered on how to move the school district’s four schools out of the tsunami zone.
State Rep. Deborah Boone, D-Cannon Beach, has put her efforts behind fast-tracking the process, which needs to gain approval from the state’s Land Conservation and Development Commission.
In Cannon Beach, there are also concerns about the location of its schools. And a pilot program has begun that will place cargo containers along the town’s high-ground areas, in which residents will be able to store essential items in case of an emergency.
You can never be too careful, Jeff Holwege says, and that’s why he wants to get others involved in amateur radio.
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