Amateur Radio Can Assist in Emergencies

Members of the Vernonia Emergency Radio Association and the Vernonia Amateur Radio Klub (VERA/VARK) held an open house at the Vernonia Fire Station on Sunday January 26th.

“We just want to get the word out that amateur radio exists in our area,” said Dawn Moss, who is the Secretary for VERA/VARK and the Public Information Officer for the West Columbia County Amateur Radio Emergency Service.  “Amateur radio is still working, it does work, we still use it and it is evolving all the time.”

VERA/VARK is a small group of local amateur radio operators who volunteer their time and expertise to help prepare a communications network in the event of a local disaster.  They were very active during the 2007 Flood in Vernonia when electrical power and phone lines were shut down.

Jim Buxton manning the radios at the Vernonia Fire Station.

Jim Buxton manning the radios at the Vernonia Fire Station.

Amateur radio, also known as “ham radio” is a reliable source for communications which does not need complex systems of infrastructure to operate.  Even when systems are functioning in an emergency, lines could be overwhelmed by the volume of calls.  Amateur radio operators can bypass the usual systems and talk directly to each other, either across town or anywhere in the world.

According to Moss, VERA/VARK currently has six active members, although there are approximately fifty licensed amateur radio operators in the Vernonia community.  “We would like to get a few more people involved,” says Moss, whose radio call letters are KE7HHI.

Amateur radio operators have assisted in numerous types of emergencies worldwide, including during earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and even during the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001.

VERA/VARK has installed new equipment at the Vernonia Fire Station which was established as the Incident Command Center during the 2007 Flood.  VERA/VARK also recently established a second base center at the West Oregon Electric Cooperative headquarters, giving the community the ability to communicate from both sides of Rock Creek, should the town be divided in two by flood waters as it was in 2007.

Jim Buxton, whose radio call letters are W7BUX, is a radio operator and volunteer with VERA/VARK.  Buxton is the group’s first responder, who is hopefully available to arrive at the station  as soon as possible.  Buxton briefly explained the role of amateur radio in the event of an emergency.

“First of all, someone would come down and open up the station.  A county wide network would be set up immediately as well as a local network.  Some sort of structure will form with someone in charge.  Then we could be in communication and carry messages if the 9-1-1 system was down or the power is out or the phone lines are down.”

Radio equipment comes in all shapes and sizes.  The Vernonia Fire Station has two mobile VHF (Very High Frequency) radios which can operate from a battery pack or car battery.  They also have a High Frequency radio at the station, giving them extra band width and communication options.  VERA/VARK also has a portable station complete with radio, power supply, extension cord, and antenna that can easily be moved to an alternate location.

Operating a ham radio is different than a Citizens Band (CB) radio.  Operators must be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Many amateur radio operators have their license just so they can help their family in an emergency.  According to Buxton, the self-test to become licensed is not especially difficult and personal equipment can be purchased for just a few hundred dollars.

Moss says VERA/VARK will be offering a  class to help people get their license in March for anyone who would prefer a structured teaching environment. It will be on Sunday afternoons.  Study guides can be found at HRO in Tigard or practice tests can be found at multiple sites on line. Contact Dawn Moss at KE7HII@gmail.com for more information.

When there is not an emergency, amateur radio operators chat with people all over the world and make new friends.  “I turn my radio on while I’m doing the dishes at home and listen to them chat,” says Buxton.  “It’s fun.  Sometimes I hear Africa, I hear Japan, Australia, Europe.”

According to Buxton, who is also a member of the Vernonia Emergency Preparedness Committee, there is strong interest in re-establishing the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Buxton says he knows there are former CERT members who have already been trained within the community who could be a great resource in the event of any type of disaster or emergency situation.

Moss says you do not have to be a licensed radio operator to join VERA; you do need to be licensed to join VARK.  “There is a role to play for anyone who wants to help in an emergency,” says Moss.  Meetings are held monthly on the second Tuesday at Mariolino’s at 7:00 PM.  The group does not meet during the summer.