When the big one hits the Puget Sound region, one of the best technologies to rely on for communication may NOT be cell phones or computers.
It could be radio.
The City of Seattle has roughly 3,000 people with amateur, or ham radio licenses.
And each week a few dedicated ham radio enthusiasts who volunteer for the city practice their protocol.
On a recent Monday night downtown, volunteer members of Seattle's Auxiliary Communications Services checked in.
Kathy Shuman (ham handle “Kilo Foxtrot Seven Tango Tango Mike”) has been in amateur radio for about four years. On a recent evening, she led the weekly practice. Shuman sat at a desk clutching a radio handset, talking to ham radio operators around the region on a special emergency frequency.
“There’s a script we have to follow,” Shuman says. “I introduce the session, then invite our members to check-in in small groups.”
Meeting every week by radio keeps communication skills sharp. It also lets them know who is out there, where they’re based and puts a voice to the ham handle.
There’s a beep, then a crackly voice pipes in through the multiple radios in the room: “This is Kilo India Seven Bravo Delta Golf. Mike in Northcentral.”
(Northcentral is a ham region.) A loud static pop signals his transmission's end.
The first part of the check is for city volunteers practicing emergency procedure. Then Shuman calls for announcements from those volunteers. Then other ham radio operators are invited to speak up.
To be a volunteer with the city's ham radio group, you have to get an amateur radio license. That costs $15. Shuman became interested in amateur radio through working with the Red Cross.
“It's reinforced my commitment to preparedness and getting to know your neighbors and being more self-reliant, when you know a disaster could happen at any time,” Shuman says.
Seattle Auxiliary Services has around 150 members. On a given Monday night, maybe 30 check in on the frequency.
The volunteer city program has been around since 1993.
Carl Leon is a military veteran who's been a ham radio operator for 25 years. He has volunteered with the emergency group for seven years.
Ham radio operators can join the weekly net for Seattle Auxiliary Services at 7pm Mondays on 146.96 kHz (offset -103.5) via the Puget Sound Repeater Group. For more information on the repeater, see http://web.psrg.org/.
“One of the beauties about amateur radio, we're already every place throughout the city,” Leon says.
During the session, ham operators pipe up from Capitol Hill, Phinney Ridge and North Seattle. Even folks from Bothell and Puyallup.
“We can talk from here to the Snohomish county E.O.C., we can talk from here to Kitsap county, Pierce county,” Leon says.
Another person tries to check in over the special radio frequency, but his signal is too weak, sending his call sign and location in short bursts. In the radio room Shuman directs him to try again.
Shuman: “Can the last person please repeat their call sign?”
But Leon says if there isn't a direct signal, there are other signals that "hams," as he calls them, can use.
“Amateur radio operators bounce signals off satellites or even the moon, in order to talk to someplace for fun,” he says.
Leon says they have a couple of high frequency radios in Seattle's Emergency Operation room for longer range communications. He says they can even send email or digital messages using their radio signal.
Mike Maloy (ham handle “Kilo Foxtrot Seven Delta Tango India”) is another volunteer with the city.
He likes to refer to Seattle’s emergency ham operators as "professional amateurs." They may be volunteers, he says, but they're trained by the city to deal with particular emergency protocols.
Maloy: “I like recognizing people's voices on these nets. To me, when something real happens, I'm able to know who I'm talking to on the air. So I know I can trust this person because I've heard them, and I know who they are.”
So when disaster strikes, your neighborhood superhero might just be an amateur radio operator.
“We're going to turn our radio on, we're going to tune into this repeater that we just used, and we're going to touch base with whoever is running the operation, the net control operator, for Seattle ACS,” Leon says.
Shuman (recall, “Kilo Foxtrot Seven Tango Tango Mike”) wraps up the weekly session on the radio.
“This is Kathy, closing the net at 7:28 pm. Goodnight everyone.”
By the numbers: Ham radio operators
- King County, WA: 10,796
- Kitsap County, WA: 1,599
- Snohomish County, WA: 3,616
- Pierce County, WA: 3,659