Ty Swenson
Ham radio enthusiasts reach out to other amateur radio station operators across the nation at South Seattle Community College on June 22. The 24-hour event was a disaster communications exercise.

SLIDESHOW: Ham radio enthusiasts prep for disaster

All it takes to realize a bunch amateur radio enthusiasts are congregating at one spot it to take a look at the cars and trucks in the parking lot, with their massive antennas reaching to the sky like those of ants standing at attention in a Pixar film.

Such was the case on June 22 as Seattle-area “Hams” (as radio operators are called) took over a grass field on the south side of South Seattle Community College in West Seattle. While the weather was ideal and the barbeque was rolling, this wasn’t just a casual gathering: these enthusiasts are prepping for the worst case scenario of a disaster knocking out our traditional forms of communication.

To read more about this weekend's event, which is open to the public, please click here.

If that day comes, know your neighborhood Ham will be the guy or gal who can communicate with the outside world.

Working with the Seattle Office of Emergency Management, American Red Cross, area hospitals and FEMA, for 24 straight hours from June 22 to the 23, Hams held their Field Day Event with around 35,000 like-minded Hams across the nation. The goal was to set up camp just as they would in a natural disaster, running all electronics off the city power grid, instead using solar panels, wind turbines and gas-run generators to set up a command post. Canvas tents and towering antennas were erected, and from there they practiced reaching out to other Hams just as they would in the case of a real disaster which, in our neck of the woods, would most likely come in the form of an earthquake.

It’s doomsday-type preparation with an altruistic twist. Hams enjoy reaching out to others through radio as a hobby, but in the worst case scenario they are ready to turn that skill into a life-saving necessity (it’s hard to say that about tennis or video games, for example) to support their community.

“What we would do is support community hubs, and we are the communication arm for that, getting communications to and from the city,” state and federal level, amateur radio guru Mark Sheppard said at the event.

“There are seven sectors to the city and each sector would have an auxiliary communications service team set up,” where they would funnel communications from smaller neighborhood hubs (West Seattle has around 11) to the main sector, who would communicate with government and authorities to explain any number of things, from medical, shelter, food and water needs to ETA’s and pickup locations for those services, Sheppard explained.

“If the broadcast information was down, if the internet was down, the Ham radio would be the way we could send information out (and receive it),” he said. Beyond voice, Sheppard said they are able to share digital information (similar to emails) over the radio as well.

Testing over the weekend was a competition of sorts, where each Ham tried to contact as many other radio operators around the nation as possible: all good experience if disaster was to strike.

“In addition to a hobby, we are the backup communications for many, many different organizations when other systems get overwhelmed with visits or fail,” Jim Pace, director of the northwester division of the American Radio Relay League told the Herald. “A good example of that would be the Nisqually earthquake locally. When Nisqually hit, even the cell phones went down for a little while and amateur radio networks were up within 20 minutes. We are there when all else fails.”

Sheppard said the current director of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), Craig Fugate, is a Ham radio operator himself, and has worked to ensure his staff understands amateur radio’s important role in disaster response.

Most of the Hams in attendance on the 2013 field day were members of smaller clubs like the West Seattle Amateur Radio Club (found at www.westseattlearc.org). Curt Black, who heads up the West Seattle club and was also the field coordinator for the SSCC event, said he encourages people to look into setting up their own radio station and joining the club.

While they’ve been around since the 1920’s, Black said, “It’s not your grandfather’s radio club.”

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