Nepal Earthquake Drives Home Importance of Local Ham Radio Emergency Exercise

Doug Holbrook and Daron Wilson, volunteers with the Lincoln County Auxiliary Communications Service communicate with other ham radio operators from the county’s Emergency Operation Center in the courthouse during Saturday’s QuakeEX exercise.(Photos by Larry Coonrod)

By Larry Coonrod

LINCOLN COUNTY—As amateur radio operators across Lincoln County practiced emergency communications after a simulated 9.0 Cascadia earthquake Saturday, scenes from an offshore earthquake in Nepal that left more than 5,000 dead showed the importance of their mission. 

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About 20 local ham radio operators with the Lincoln County Auxiliary Communications (ACS) Service took part in the Oregon Emergency Management’s statewide QuakeEX exercise. The training scenario simulated a Cascadia earthquake disrupting cell phone towers, landlines and Internet. 

In real life that would leave amateur radio as the only link to the outside world. 

 Radio amateurs armed with palm sized 2-meter radios acted as “rovers” in the field, updating the county emergency operations center (EOC). Other hams passed communication from the county EOC to state emergency officials in Salem.

“We work at being independent of the grid,” said Mike Eastman, ACS spokesperson.

 “Everything else can be down but if there are two people with handhelds in that area, you can communicate.”

A one point Saturday, Willie Mortimer, working out of the mobile command post, talked to a radio operator aboard the aircraft carrier U.S. Hornet monitoring the QuakeEX drill somewhere in the Pacific Ocean — demonstrating the reach of amateur radio.

“He said our exercise sounded good, and then asked if we needed an airstrike,” laughed Mortimer. “I told him no, we were good.”

Radio operators across the state sent more than 2,000 messages during Saturday’s drill. The training provided county and state amateur radio emergency communication units an opportunity to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

While QuakeEX was only a simulation, 7,000 miles away in Nepal, amateur radio operators provided the only source of communication in many areas after a 7.8 magnitude quake struck. Hams in Nepal and around the world helped pass requests for aid and messages from survivors to their families.

40 Percent Chance of Major Earthquake

“Oregon is due for a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that could be even larger than the one that struck Nepal,” said Kim Lippert, public information officer for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

 “An earthquake of that size will cut standard forms of communication, making amateur radio operators critical.”

Experts say there is a 40 percent chance of a large 9.0 or higher earthquake striking our state within the next 50 years. 

More Volunteers Needed 

Saturday marked Ginny Goblirsch’s second emergency communication exercise since earning her radio license. Living in Otter Rock, she initially wanted a way to communicate with her daughter in Seattle. It wasn’t long before she joined the county’s auxiliary communication service.

“I just think communications is so important when there is an emergency, and it doesn’t have to be the big one either,” she said. 

“I’m just trying to be good enough to be of help. It takes a lot of practice.”

Oregon has about 18,000 licensed amateur radio operators. Of those, 1,000 or so are registered and trained to support emergency operations. Eastman said about 50 hams work with the county’s Emergency Management Department.

In a real emergency, many more would be needed. A person with an inexpensive handheld 2-meter radio could provide valuable information to the county EOC about his or her own neighborhood, Eastman said. 

Local Training Available

Back in the day, earning even the lowest class of license required weeks or months of learning Morse code. The good news is the Federal Communication Commission dropped the code requirement. Anyone can earn a basic license by passing a 35 question multiple-choice test.

Eastman, also a member of the Lincoln County Radio Club, teaches beginners the basics of radio and operating rules needed to pass the test. 

Although there are some workable Chinese handheld 2-meter radios on the market for $35, Eastman says he tries to steer people to the more reliable and user-friendly models in the $150 range. 

“A person can get into the hobby for a couple of hundred dollars to get a license and a good handheld radio,” he said.

Once licensed, the Lincoln County Auxiliary Communication Service offers training in emergency response.

Organizations Encouraged to Have Radio Licensed Staff

Ideally, large organizations that need to function during an emergency such as hospitals would have licensed amateur radio operators on staff, Eastman said.

“We may not have people to send to all those places and there may be difficulty getting people in from outside the area,” he said.

The Lincoln County Amateur Radio Club meets the second Tuesday of the Month in the Central Lincoln PUD meeting room in Newport at 7 p.m.

Ham Radio Information

Lincoln County Amateur Radio Club: www.N7OY.org

Lincoln County Auxiliary Communication Service: Lincolncountyacs.org

 

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