Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Day The Phones Went Down in Cali...


There is nothing quite like the sound of a very insistent police officer knocking on your door/ringing your doorbell at 5 am on a Thursday. No, for those of you wondering, they weren't there to serve a warrant or arrest me. :) As it turns out, we had a MAJOR outage of communications service in the South County area of the California Bay Area. Specifically, the towns of Morgan Hill (where I live), Gilroy, and part of South San Jose were all completely isolated from a communications perspective. No E911 services, no long distance (calls within the local telephone central office would go through sporadically), and no cell phones. Basically, back to the 'good old days' (or at least the simpler times). The friendly police officer was at my door to fetch me as one of the leaders of our volunteer emergency response team since there was literally no other way to activate our team. I serve on both the Amateur Radio Emergency Services team (ARES) and the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

I was in the field for the better part of the day, took a short break, then was back out again in the evening. I'd like to take a look at the technology aspects of this incident, what worked well (Amateur Radio), and what did not (all of the modern infrastructure that we rely on).

The Good:

Amateur Radio Response - I have a sticker on my car from the Amateur Radio Relay League that reads 'When all else fails, Amateur Radio'. There was never a truer statement spoken on 4/9/09. Other than the public safety radios of the police and fire departments, the ARES team I help lead provided the only reliable communications link that citizens had to contact emergency services, and that the Office of Emergency services had to contact neighboring Emergency Operations Centers. As a matter of fact, at one point, Gilroy Fire and Santa Clara County fire personnel were using our radio equipment to coordinate their response from within the respective EOC rooms in Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

However, the most awesome thing I saw during the entire incident was the response from the MAC (Mutual Aid Communicator) system that the Santa Clara County ARES/RACES organization has worked hard to put into place. All told, we had 42 extremely capable amateur radio operators from many unaffected cities in the county descending upon the incident to help us staff key positions. We had communicators in the field at schools, fire stations, community centers, and major intersections to provide a 'safety net' for citizens to report problems and get updated information. We also served as extra 'eyes and ears', freeing up police personnel to focus on more critical tasks. I've never been prouder to be associated with a group of volunteers as I was that day.

Remember, the 'amateur' in amateur radio simply refers to the fact that we can't take money for our services. This group has consistently shown an outstanding level of professionalism and dedication in providing communications support to the South Bay in times of crisis. The city management of both Morgan Hill and Gilroy, and the associated professional responders were very pleased with the efforts of the volunteer groups, and we were glad to be able to put all of our training to good use in support of the stellar job they did. This isn't the 'Ham Radio' that sometimes gets unjustly made fun of ('crazy people with tube radios in their garage talking to China') - this was a professional response by dedicated individuals who were ready and able to be used as a 'force multiplier' to augment the regular first responders.

The Bad:

This incident highlighted all too well how dependent as a society we have become on technology. Now, I'm as much of a technology guy as the next geek, but this incident clearly showed a need to keep 'alternate tech' like ham radio alive and vibrant. Also, this was probably a wakeup call to citizens who spent the day with no ATMs, no POS machines (gas pumps, credit/debit cards, etc.), no Internet, and no E911 services.

Besides the obvious steps that need to be taken to harden and protect the infrastructure we rely on, it's incumbent upon citizens to be prepared for these kinds of incidents. Know your 7-digit police/fire dispatch numbers, have extra cash on hand, make sure your gas tanks are always filled when you hit half empty, & keep enough food, water, etc. on hand to last 72 hours.

The major point to take away from this incident is that it really isn't about the tech, it is about how it's applied. There is a reason that 'old-tech' like two-way radios are still used by police and fire agencies, however, the professionalism of that community, coupled with a dedicated and prepared group of volunteer communicators who know how to work in concert with them is what made the difference in this crisis.

So, go out and make sure you are prepared if the technological underpinnings of our society go haywire again... and, remember to thank a ham radio operator the next time you see them responding to a crisis in your community... :)