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by Russell E. Bankson, N6GWL
Pacific Region, Civil Air Patrol
RACESBUL.114 - 117 Dates: Apr. 23, 1990 - May 14, 1990

Russ Bankson is a licensed Amateur Radio operator. He has been deeply involved with volunteer emergency communications operations, plans, and system development for over forty years. A Lieutenant Colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, he spearheaded a period of major CAP communications development in California as its director of communications. Russ is active for in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service of the American Radio Relay League. One of his favorite activities is speaking before youth groups and encouraging their interest in radio, electronics, and the sciences.

What does an Amateur Radio operator do as a public service volunteer who sometimes works during an emergency? The basic concept of the volunteer Amateur in emergencies is to provide communications for the safety of life and protection of property for the community during emergencies when established communications for and between public service agencies are overloaded or not functioning.

Let's get down to the nitty gritty of how the Amateur tactical communications net performs its services.

When an emergency or disaster happens in a community, the Amateur Radio public service volunteer checks into pre-established nets to report conditions in his locality and his availability and capability. If there is a need for Amateur radio communications, when directed he may report to the emergency operations center, fire department, hospital, Red Cross, shelter, incident commander, forest service, Amateur radio net control station, or to the area as directed where the Amateur is needed. As long as all established communications are available, he does nothing but monitors and is available in the event any communications system becomes overloaded, fails, or is not available between agencies.

This sometimes means more than coming to the assignment with a hand held transceiver. Following the October 17, 1989 earthquake the Amateurs had to install antennas, coaxial cables, lights for operating positions, power supplies for mobile transceivers used as base stations, maps, phone numbers, writing materials, battery charging systems, personal survival kit, tools, transportation, fuel, money, expertise, dedication and professionalism. Many of the locations worked around the clock for many days.

So far nothing has been said about what communications service the Amateurs provided during the earthquake emergency when phones were disabled and electrical power was off and there was danger to life and severe damage to property. I am going to relate some of the messages the Amateurs handled following the earthquake in Watsonville, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco. Within twenty minutes after the quake the Amateurs had checked in to the reporting nets, checked their neighbors for well being, and had reported to the Red Cross Amateur Radio stations. Immediately the tactical emergency net was established. This was done because there was no power, no reliable phone communications between the Red Cross Chapters, and a major threat to life and property existed.

  • Boots, sox and rain gear needed - who can supply?
  • 22,000 pounds of fresh fruit - who can use now?
  • People finder dog teams are coming.
  • Man with infrared people finder arrived from New York - report where?
  • Need canned food, cots and tents.
  • Nurses' thermometers broken - need replacements.
  • Helicopter is loaded for Santa Cruz - where to land?
  • Need prescription filled - drugstore is closed.
  • Hard hats are needed.
  • Shelter is closing - moving where?
  • Amateurs near Cypress overpass disaster must have dust masks.
  • Amateurs coming from over 200 miles away.
  • 1500 homes in Oakland were damaged.
  • Several truck convoys going to Santa Cruz from Bay Area.
  • More Amateurs are needed - some have been working around the clock.
  • What communication paths are open?
  • Message from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, Red Cross worker: I want to come home.
  • Supply truck is missing for 14 hours - report if found.
  • Operator needed for the blood bank.
  • Hospital needs radio circuit with blood bank.
  • Two Red Cross emergency power generators will not start.
  • Need more shelter managers for replacement.
  • Oakland Disaster Control wants Amateur service at the EOC.
  • Cellular telephones being sent to Watsonville and Santa Cruz.
  • Fresno is sending supplies to Watsonville.
  • State Office of Emergency Services Region Two office is on two Amateur Radio frequencies.
  • This is just a small example of the many types of messages handled by the tactical net of Amateurs. If you use your imagination you can visualize the service the Amateur provides during floods, hurricanes, fires, lost people, earthquakes, hazardous material spills, internal telephone failures in hospitals, snow storms and other communication needs.

    Why did the Red Cross need to use Amateur Radio communications? Communications were needed to activate shelters for thousands of displaced people. Feeding, providing clothing, accepting donations of supplies, transporting supplies where needed, providing safe routes between cities, storage of supplies, communications between leaders with responsibilities, assignment of personnel to tactical positions, keeping track of hundreds of assigned volunteers, providing change of shift personnel around the clock, communications with Western Red Cross Field Office and other chapters, communications with other agencies such as the Navy, Air Force, Department of Transportation, fire departments, police, State Office of Emergency services, damage evaluators and hospitals.

    When the need is there, the dedicated public service Amateur Radio operator is there, doing volunteer public service.

    Archives of California RACES Bulletins are available via anonymous ftp at

    The Home Page for the State of California Governor's Office of Emergency Services contains other information about emergency response in California and elsewhere


     ARES® (Amateur Radio Emergency Service®) is a program of the American Radio Relay League
    Copyright © 2008 - Lake County Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, Inc.
     Most recent revision 03/20/08