Fri04182014

Community

Local ham operators offer helping hand in emergencies

COMM LAAREShamradiooperatorsSecurity for some might mean first-aid supplies in the trunk of the car or the voice of a 911 operator on the other end of an emergency call, but to members of the all-volunteer Los Altos Amateur Radio Emergency Service (LAARES), a pocket-sized handset radio is the quintessential tool for peace of mind.

No minuscule keyboard, fancy LED screen or built-in camera needed, LAARES member Jim Clark sends a test signal to another amateur, or ham, radio operator in Mountain View without thinking or blinking twice. And, that’s exactly what makes the communications system so valuable – it’s more reliable than any cellphone or piece of technology out there.

Operating off the grid via frequency modulation, ham radio operators can communicate from city to city, and even across the country and globe, when repeater towers are used. As proven in blackouts and natural disasters, amateur radio operators keep running when other communications systems fail.

Despite the fallibility of modern communications devices, Clark and fellow ham operator Tom Smith note that it’s difficult to convert bedazzled smartphone users to ham enthusiasts.

“‘That’s old technology. … Why do I need that?’” is the common response Smith encounters when attempting to recruit prospective amateur radio operators. “They think it’s not going to be a problem, that someone else is going to take care of me.”

Although Smith estimated approximately 200 to 300 licensed ham radio operators in Los Altos, he noted that the number of operators training for emergency communications is much lower. Ham radios are commonly used for a variety of purposes, including long-distance and military communications, radiotelegraphy and even contests.

For ham radio operators who choose to train for emergency communications, the hobby is a serious commitment and form of public service.

“You have to be ready to help whenever, wherever it happens,” said Smith, who keeps a collection of radios in his vehicle for any circumstance that might arise. “It’s not a backseat hobby.”

LAARES offers four training sessions a year to help local residents prepare for the 35-question Federal Communications Commission’s amateur radio technician exam, but the group’s services run deeper. Operating under the guidance of the Los Altos Police Department, members are ready to turn their radios on for emergency communications work near and far. When help was needed in San Jose during a past incident, LAARES members joined with more than 40 amateur radio operators in the region to mobilize a network.

Local residents will find amateur radio operators exercising their skills alongside police personnel, reporting data in emergency drills and even directing traffic and maintaining spectator safety at the annual Festival of Lights Parade.

Clark is confident that existing LAARES volunteers are prepared for potential emergency scenarios, but he welcomes new recruits. With approximately 30,000 residents in Los Altos, “the more the merrier,” he said.

For more information, visit laares.info.

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