Radio waves: Classic communication can save lives in emergency situations

Our society has become dependent upon technology in just about every area of life, especially when it comes to information and communication, and the systems we rely on are remarkably fragile. Local coastal telephone landlines, for example, travel to the Willamette Valley and back, so, even if making a local call, the signal travels some distance.  Any number of things can happen to disrupt those lines.  Cell phone signal capacity easily becomes overwhelmed in high use situations.

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What happens, then, in an emergency situation if there’s no wi-fi because the Internet and power are out, the smart phone has no signal, and the landlines are silent?

Jenny Demaris, Emergency Manager for Lincoln County, says the local association of ham radio operators will be “one of the critical behind-the-scenes volunteer groups that will be the back bone of communications when principal systems fail or are overloaded.”

Demaris goes on to say that, in a Cascadia event, planners anticipate losing all cell and landline communications systems.  “As long as emergency fuel is available to run generators, line-of-sight radios will work vehicle to vehicle so long as the batteries are charged,” she said.  “Amateur radio will step in to provide critical communications between communities, hospitals, tribes, etc.”

Amateur radios are one of several redundant communications systems, including marine band and CB or citizens band, that emergency responders will use in an emergency.

Demaris emphasizes that, when we have a Cascadia or other significant emergency, it will be an “information drought event;” something that will take most people by surprise.

“The general population as a whole will be dependent on a very small group,” explains Demaris.  “As radio frequencies will be used for critical services, other information will have to be relayed.”

Daron Wilson is the Chief of Auxiliary Communication Services (ACS) in Lincoln County, a volunteer group of ham operators that work to make sure trained volunteer are equipped in case of emergency.  Wilson also developed the training program known as ACES – Auxiliary Communications Emergency Solutions – that standardized training and preparedness.

The ACES course is 24 hours of hand-on training in all aspects of radio operations, technology, and maintenance, as well as some emergency safety and preparedness features similar to CERT.  Licensing is competency based and members must demonstrate their ability prior to getting their operator licenses.

“It’s like getting a driver’s permit,” Wilson explains.  “Getting your permit is just the start; you still have to practice driving.  The same applies to ham radio:  If you don’t use it, you will lose the skills and knowledge.”

Members of ACS who take seriously the call to be skillful and knowledgeable are Ben Carlin and his wife Marsha.  The Carlin’s were among those ham operators who participated in the recent Cascadia Rising regional preparedness drill.  Their group ran a scenario of no communications between Depoe Bay and Newport.

“Using nothing but the equipment we had on hand, generators, antennas, and ham radios, we were able to contact a station on Mt Hood and leave and relay messages for Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office,” said Mr. Carlin.  The mission, added Mrs. Carlin, was, “to work out a communication system between coastal communities.”

“Cascadia Rising was a great success,” explained Mr. Carlin in speaking of the radio operation.  They were able to reach communities in Nevada and Idaho, which would be theoretically out of the impact zone of a Cascadia event.  Explaining the gateway messaging system, he added messages could be “accessible to any radio operator in the world, and all done through radio waves,” describing it as a way to get messages to family and friends out of state.

Wilson too described the versatility of radio communication, saying he has been able to send emails to family members all over the country without any internet access solely via radio waves.

“We don’t have enough ham radio operators,” urged Carlin. “We need more people to become licensed operators,” his wife added. “We can never have too many. But we need people who are trained and equipped and will be active; we don’t need 60 people who have their license but haven’t used a radio for two years on the same channel as the fire service.”

“We need more young people who are interested in pursuing this as a hobby, we need people who are willing to help in their own community, and we need people who can keep their 72-hour kit and go-kit and radios in their car and are prepared to function no matter where they are,” said Wilson.

To learn more about ham radios and how to become a licensed operator, visit