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Ham radio operators remain key link in Seattle’s disaster preparedness

Dozens of amateur or Ham radio operators will gather Saturday in Seattle for an annual disaster preparedness drill. (Photo courtesy Mark Sheppard/Seattle Department of Emergency Management)

If, or when, a big earthquake hits our area, what happens if our cell phones and modern communications go down?

It turns out emergency managers would rely on a volunteer network of amateur or ham radio operators to keep critical communications connected.

It might seem like an old-school way to keep in touch when we have all this technology. But it remains a critical link, said Barb Graff, the director of the Seattle Office of Emergency Management.

“We study disasters for a living and in all those lessons, especially the ones that cripple communications because of overload or damage, it’s amateur radio operators that are the last line of defense,” she said.

A network of volunteers across the city – and across the world – continues to operate despite the ubiquity of cell phones and the Internet.

Some use handheld radios, others are outfitted with more sophisticated base stations and antennas in their yard or on their roof, according to Mark Sheppard, a veteran emergency planner and Communications Unit Leader for the Office of Emergency Management.

“These folks have know-how, they have their own radio equipment, they’ve constructed their own hilltop repeater systems that will work and are durable &#8212 because they have backup power &#8212 after a major event,” Sheppard said.

The ham radios of today feature modern technology that do far more than just allow people to talk &#8212 they can also transmit data, emails, and other information.

“They can get detailed lists of medicines and supplies that can go through much more quickly than if you have to narrate them by voice,” Sheppard said.

The region’s system will be put to the test this weekend at South Seattle College, when dozens gather as part of the national Amateur Radio Field Day exercise.

They’ll practice far more than just communications.

“The other big part is the logistics, being able to set up a 40-by-40-foot tent, have trailers, gasoline generators,” Sheppard said.

It might seen a bit sketchy to rely on a network of volunteer enthusiasts whose hobby harkens back to a bygone era. But Sheppard said local amateur radio groups continue to flourish, regularly attracting new, younger members in large part because it combines technology, meteorology, and other sciences. Many come from Microsoft, Amazon, and other tech companies.

And Graff regularly pushes people and communities to get involved with amateur radio to help bolster what could be the last, but critical line of communications.

“It is reliable, it is affordable, and it is necessary,” Graff said.

You can buy a good handheld radio for a couple of hundred dollars, or spend a little more on a base station and antenna that can help connect your neighborhood in the event of a disaster.

For more information about Field Day and the organization, contact Seattle ACS.

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