During the annual Kiwanis Pet Parade in Los Altos, ham radio operators typically set up a command center as volunteers fan out around the downtown area to provide communications support and practice their amateur radio skills.
This year’s Pet Parade, broadcast online May 30, was different given the coronavirus pandemic. But that didn’t stop local emergency amateur radio operators from participating – and having fun at the same time.
The radio operators pivoted and used the virtual parade to practice their radio communications skills and emergency protocols. The leaders designed several light-hearted scenarios to use for their training and engage the hams as they sheltered in place at home.
The hypothetical situations featured confronting a storybook wolf in sheep’s clothing in one encounter, and assisting a Bigfoot in search of a podiatrist in another.
Although the scenarios were far-fetched and intended to be fun, the reasons behind the exercise were serious.
Operating as part of Los Altos Amateur Radio Emergency Service (LAARES), the hams used the virtual event to train for the types of live events and emergency disaster situations they support year-round.
LAARES grew out of a regional civil-defense effort that started back in the 1950s, led by Los Altos resident Walt Read. Over the years, it has grown into a group of amateur radio operators who constantly train and refine their ability to deploy in support of both live community events and large-scale disasters.
Since 2013, significant improvements have been made to community readiness to respond to local emergencies, according to Ann Hepenstal, Los Altos emergency preparedness coordinator.
LAARES has upgraded the Emergency Operations Center radio equipment, installed two amateur radio repeater systems, built and deployed packet radio equipment, established the Emergency Information and Response Site (EIRS) concept and established ongoing training for new and existing amateur radio operators in emergency operating procedures.
Los Altos PREPARES, a city program, has grown steadily in the past few years, with support from the Los Altos City Council and under Hepenstal’s leadership. The PREPARES program has initiated outreach to the community, including offering its third round of Community and Emergency Preparedness Grants to fund equipment and programs proposed by Los Altos neighborhood volunteers.
The grant program grabbed the attention of young Los Altos resident Nicolas Bremeau, an avid amateur radio operator and aspiring Eagle Scout. He applied for and received a grant this year to build a packet radio station, which can transmit digital information over ham radio waves, from the EIRS location for his neighborhood Block Action Team near downtown and Lincoln Park.
His EIRS was put to good use for a Los Altos emergency drill May 16, where approximately 20 amateur radio operators simulated a large emergency with realistic details including simulated injuries and damaged buildings.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently appointed Bremeau to its Youth Preparedness Council.