For more than a decade, the Festival of Lights Parade has relied on a crew of ham radio operators working in the background to help the Los Altos Police Department and event organizers keep things running smoothly.
Los Altos Amateur Radio Emergency Service (LAARES) intends to continue that tradition at this year’s event, scheduled 6 p.m. Dec. 1 in downtown Los Altos.
While many amateur radio enthusiasts compete in contests to contact the most people or communicate over the longest distance, LAARES’ focus is emergency support and emergency communications.
"Our goal is to … provide backup communications in the event of an emergency," LAARES member Jim Clark said.
The approximately 50-member organization also employs these communication skills at other annual events in town, such as the New Year’s Day Fun Run, the Kiwanis Pet Parade and the Los Altos Arts & Wine Festival.
More than 30 hams typically work the Festival of Lights, according to Clark, performing a variety of tasks. Hams stand on the streets, effectively acting as the "eyes and ears for the police," he said. They also shadow parade staffers, enabling faster and more reliable communication among the workers through the use of ham radio.
The group that works the parade is geographically diverse, coming from cities throughout the county - and beyond.
"We’ve had people from San Francisco drive down to help with the parade," Clark said. "That allows us to practice … coordination of hams from various jurisdictions."
The Festival of Lights Parade is effectively a drill for LAARES, providing a scenario for which the organization can practice communications in an emergency, Clark added. Ham radio enables communication throughout the city without the need for cell towers or internet access. It also can provide communication outside the bounds of the city, if needed.
"We do a lot of training, practice amongst ourselves, but this is a real-world environment where you’ve got a lot of noise and a lot of people," the Los Altos resident said. "It’s as real-life as you can get."
One predicament hams often deal with are lost children. If a lost child is reported, the description is relayed to the hams so that they can keep their eyes peeled.
"It pretty much happens every year," Clark said.
Nancy Schneider, the parade’s chairwoman of costumes, attested to the help the hams provide by shadowing parade staff.
"We consider them partners to the parade volunteers," she said.
Seven to eight hams shadow various staffers, according to Schneider.
"They’re irreplaceable if there’s a breakdown in the parade, something goes down," she said. "They can get ahold of us or the police. They get ahold of the mechanics."
The shadows communicate important information to the staffers, such as where certain floats are in the parade or the status of situations not in the immediate vicinity of the staffer.
One other task the hams perform is catching and reporting vendors selling unsanctioned items. If a ham spots an illegal vendor, he or she is reported to the police via radio.
LAARES is open to new members. For more information, visit LAARES.org.