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Amateur radio operators will be standing by -- just in case
Wednesday, December 8, 1999
By Courtenay Thompson of The Oregonian staff
For Bend amateur radio operator Bill Sawders, the new millennium will start at 4 a.m. Dec. 31.
Hours before Oregonians welcome the new year, Sawders will fire up his powerful radio set and begin talking to radio operators in New Zealand, Fiji and other countries that will be the first to enter the year 2000 -- and possibly the first to encounter Y2K-related problems.
Sawders is the volunteer Oregon section manager for the Amateur Radio Relay League, a nonprofit national organization that supports ham radio. This year, Oregon emergency management officials asked Sawders to set up a network of 12 radio operators along the West Coast to monitor the unfolding of the new millennium.
"Operation Rollover" will track the millennium as it works its way east through time zones until it eventually reaches the West Coast of the United States.
Sawders will relay to state and federal emergency management officials information about power outages, television and radio news, telephone or computer disruptions, or other problems related to the Y2K computer glitch and the hype over the new millennium.
"I would imagine within three to four hours -- by the time most people are getting out of bed on New Year's Eve -- they'll know if there is going to be a Y2K (problem)," Sawders said. "Which is nice."
Sawders is just one of dozens, probably hundreds, of amateur or "ham" radio operators in Oregon who will be helping the state ease into the new millennium New Year's Eve. Volunteers will be on standby with their radios and batteries at emergency operations centers and fire stations in Portland, hospitals in Eugene and in counties throughout the state, ready to provide backup communications in case telephones, power or computers fail.
And they'll do it as a voluntary public service.
"That is the beauty of amateur radio," said Bill Morris, assistant emergency coordinator for the Portland Office of Emergency Management. "They will bring their own equipment. It gives them the opportunity to practice what they do and, in a real situation, help the community."
Amateur radio operators are hobbyists licensed by the Federal Communication Commission to use certain radio frequencies to communicate. Amateur radio goes back nearly to the start of radio early this century, and today ham radio operators use the radios not just for fun but also to provide backup and additional communication in a variety of emergencies.
For example, when a telephone line was cut in Bend 1= years ago, a child being treated for injuries at St. Charles Medical Center needed an emergency procedure, but no one could reach the child's parents in Prineville, said Rod Kirk, dispatch supervisor for the Oregon State Police Eastern Regional Dispatch Center in Bend.
So officials contacted a ham operator in Bend, who then radioed a counterpart in Prineville, who then drove to the parents' house.
On New Year's Eve, the Bend center will have eight amateur operators lined up to communicate with police headquarters in Salem and regional dispatch centers in Medford and Salem.
"Hopefully, we'll not need to use them at all, but in case something goes bad, they're here and ready to go and can fill our (communications) gap for us," Kirk said.
Most Oregon counties are organizing radio volunteers to be at emergency centers, or on call at their home base stations or in radio-equipped vehicles, according to Lewis Williams, volunteer emergency coordinator for the state of Oregon. He also heads the state's volunteer Amateur Radio Emergency Services, or Ares, part of the national nonprofit league.
Portland gets ready
In Portland, amateur clubs will be sending three amateur radio operators to the Portland Emergency Operations Center, as well as to the city's 21 fire stations, if enough people volunteer.
If power and the city's many backup communications systems fail, radio operators could, for example, easily put Gov. John Kitzhaber in touch with Mayor Vera Katz, said Craig Marquette, who is responsible for Ares communications in the seven Northwest counties of Oregon.
"If everything goes out out there," Marquette said, "the beauty of ham radio is we are prepared to operate off a battery, like a car battery. We're prepared to put up a piece of wire, MacGyver-like, and we are on the air."
And if a hilltop repeater -- electronic equipment that relays radio frequencies longer distances -- goes out, Marquette said, hams will be standing by to drive specially equipped vehicles to the nearest hilltop to act as repeaters.
"If there is a disaster, we are prepared to augment emergency communications," Marquette said. "In case their communications get trashed, we are here to replace those communications to the best of our abilities."
But Marquette, whose paying job is as information manager for the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, said he anticipates a quiet night New Year's Eve.
"We don't anticipate any problems," said Marquette, "The best case is we're all sitting around at 12:05 saying, 'Well, there you go. Break out the Martinelli's.' "
-- snooze button (email@example.com), December 08, 1999
I would expect that a lot of us will be doing the same...as early as we can start getting data. I hope that we can get some reasonable distance on 6 meters...
-- Mad Monk (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 08, 1999.
Oregon has ramped up in lots of helpful ways. We told Mayor Vera Katz that if Portland does as well as the Council says it will, they need to be prepared for many refugees :-)
-- Ashton & Leska in Cascadia (email@example.com), December 08, 1999.
I will be on the air, hopefully with a (particular) ham in Fiji, early on the 31st. I'll report whatever I can find out.
-- Steve Heller (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 09, 1999.