Editor’s note: Magdalena Valderrama is the Program Director at Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association, a 501c3 nonprofit organization specializing in facilitating collaboration among neighborhoods, tribal nations, county agencies, municipal advisory councils, special districts, and nonprofits for community resilience in wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration. Magdalena is a longtime member with FAC Net. In this blog, she highlights a network of community members working with radios to increase general awareness and safety from wildfire and other hazards. The original version of this blog post was updated at the request of the author on 11/13/23 to remove references that might be offensive to radio operators who are equally dedicated and trained but are not paid for their work, including CB operators; to explain more clearly the obstacles that radio operators might themselves face as they try to warn their neighbors; and provide cost of entry figures rather than a broad range of setup costs.
The wave of megafires since 2018 in northern California has led to new interest in emergency management communications using radios. This is because radio systems have long been able to function completely independently of internet and cellphone systems, a feature that is useful during wildfire and other disasters when communications towers may go down.
For immediate emergency management purposes, FEMA encourages using ham radio for CERT operations, the Community Emergency Response Teams, and the National Association for Amateur Radio offers the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) to aid government agencies and nonprofit organizations. But can more accessible systems also be of service?
“When the Valley Fire hit, even though I had a radio, there was no quick way to alert my neighbors” recalls licensed ham radio operator and Cobb Alert Net founder, Mel McMurrin. “The local ham repeater might alert a dozen or so friends, none of which were in the path of the fire. I had to resort to knocking on doors, ramshackle group texting and calling neighbors one by one. People weren’t answering their phones, older friends didn’t text. And eventually, cell towers, landlines and the internet went out…taking Facebook and online scanners with them!”
In 2016, along with other wildfire survivors in Cobb, California grappling with the County tally of 1300 structures and 4 lives lost the year before in the Valley Fire, Mel presented an idea to the newly formed Cobb Area Council and their equally new Communications Committee about empowering residents to warn each other of approaching danger in conjunction with the official alerts from the County Sheriff’s office. The council agreed, and Mel and a few others, including my partner and I, got to work.
The basic arrangement is simple: a first tier of a handful of fully licensed ham radio operators, scanner listeners and experienced CBers whose expertise forms the core, a next larger tier of licensed General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) operators who serve as neighborhood group leaders, and a final tier of neighborhood residents who prefer to use the simplest Family Radio Service (FRS) radios. The group leaders look out for bulk discounts for the FRS radios, program all the radios, and make sure everyone knows which radio frequencies they are allowed to access. Weekly practice for 20-60 minutes and test alerts ensures that everyone knows the proper procedures for using the airwaves, including emergency protocols and that their radios are functioning.
Ham radio (and CB) are popularly thought of as long range communications. One of our neighbors regularly talks to operators in New Zealand via ham radio. By comparison, GMRS radios have an effective range of between 1-70 miles, especially when used in conjunction with radio repeaters that are at existing radio tower sites . And under similar conditions, but with line of sight blocked only by a few buildings or trees, the little walkie-talkies can now reach a realistic range of 0.3 to 1 mile. Costs are comparable (see table below).
As of this date, the total number of CAN participants is 270, scattered over 85 square miles and 7 large hamlets. Of this number, a handful are ham operators and 34 are licensed GMRS operators. In addition to sending out warnings of local fires, the group has tracked spot fires and reported them to the local fire department, warned members of sudden highway closures during snowstorms, and sent out regular reminders and announcements about things like being sure not to leave burn piles unattended, or a recent Tree Mortality & Fire Prevention Virtual Town Hall. The Cobb network has given birth to a similar (GMRS only) network in the north county that operates from a repeater on Mt Konocti.
Raffles, contests, and fun simulation exercises have helped grow the group and keep everyone involved. As we all know, community engagement is key to community resilience.