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by Robert S. Hoover
RACES BULLETIN 029 Date:18 July, 1988

The following are excerpts from an article, "The California Earthquake", by Robert S. Hoover, KA6HZF. It is a thought provoking paper that should be of interest to all hams and emergency services managers. This controversial article was transmitted in sections: Bulletin numbers 029A through 029H.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article should be a wake-up call for the Hams who think that because they have a hand-held radio with a "rubber duck" antenna that they qualify as an emergency communicator. Although originally written in 1988, most of the IDEAS are valid today. In spite of some of the controversial aspects of this article, there is some valuable food for thought here even if you don't live in California.]

- Rip Smith, KC3H

California is going to have a catastrophic earthquake within thirty years. [See "erratta" below - ED] It's as inevitable as it is unavoidable, a natural geophysical phenomenon we can neither prevent nor avoid.

There are earthquakes and there are Major earthquakes and there are these horrendous killers called Great Earthquakes---seismic events with an intensity of Richter 8 and up.

In 1983 an earthquake struck the little town of Coalinga and shook down some older buildings. No one died but the media loved it, calling it a Major quake and milking it for all they could. As earthquakes go, Coalinga was strictly a non-player.

Unfortunately the town was almost on top of the epicenter.

In 1971 a Major earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley near the town of Sylmar. It destroyed a newly constructed Veterans Administration hospital, damaged another and ruined many commercial buildings. Sixty-eight people died and 30,000 living below an old earthen dam were evacuated. The Sylmar quake was one one-thousandth as powerful as the predicted Great Earthquake.

The Great Earthquake due to strike California will be ten thousand times as dangerous as the Coalinga non-event; a thousand times as damaging as the San Fernando quake. And its epicenter will be scant miles from the most densely populated region in Southern California.

The earthquake will stagger our nation's economy . . . the lives of all Americans will be touched in some way by the California Earthquake. Our only recourse is to prepare for a rapid, strategic recovery. But we are simply unprepared.

The Great Earthquake will virtually isolate the region for up to two weeks. Two weeks without water, power or gas. Two weeks without the protection of firemen or police.

This will be the greatest natural disaster to ever strike our nation and it will go down in the history of amateur radio as our blackest hour because we are not prepared.

We aren't prepared for a Great Earthquake in Southern California simply because an earthquake is not a blizzard. Nor is it a spring flood. And it's not a tornado. People will die of exposure and drowning, and there will be flooding and buildings will be ripped to pieces---but it's going to happen all at once; all at the same time and all in a matter of minutes.

Its damage can cover thousands of square miles. We can't expect help from neighboring towns, they're having their own earthquake, and hoping we can help them.

After a Great Earthquake it will take days for relief efforts to take hold. We'll be on our own. And we aren't prepared for it.

A comprehensive plan must be designed around the decision makers, not around the buildings housing them. The communication plan must be flexible enough to accommodate a scattered command structure and still function. This calls for design with a high degree of modularity and fully portable, self-contained communications equipment.

To assume any form of communication---radio or telephone---will survive a Great Earthquake is dangerous. Modern public safety communication uses repeaters, just like we do. A critical analysis reveals less than 5% of existing repeaters, amateur or commercial, will withstand a Richter 8+ event.

Before any repeater in included in the planning for a catastrophic event it should be hardened, completely self-contained and be accessible. Few of Southern California's hundreds of repeaters meet this criteria.

There are three main roles of communications in modern Disaster Management: Disaster Assessment, Command-Control, and Health & Welfare. Most hams are only familiar with the latter.

Knowledgeable disaster managers would like to use hams in the Disaster Assessment role but find few who are young enough . . . it is a physically demanding job that requires many skills in addition to the ability to communicate. Given the time window of the event, training expended on older hams will be largely wasted.

Command-Control is a job for a Super Ham. No communicator who has Bashed his way to an Advanced ticket need apply. There's a need for technical expertise, common sense and a cool head---qualities growing rare in our shrinking ham community. it practical to train a sixty year old ham for a task which may not occur for thirty years?

Ham radio has always borne the brunt of Health & Welfare messages following a disaster but we aren't prepared for the volume of traffic a Great Earthquake will produce. Our failure will contribute to the virtual collapse of the telephone system across the nation. After the quake we can expect between 900,000 and 3.2 million pieces of outgoing H&W traffic. In the first few days (the nation) will generate between nine and fifteen million pieces of incoming H&W traffic. We just aren't prepared for it. Even the low estimate of outgoing traffic will swamp our facilities. We are too slow and too poorly organized. We're using the wrong equipment and the wrong procedures.

We're too old for Damage Assessment, we haven't the skills for Command-Control and we lack the capacity for Health & Welfare. The people depending on us are in for a rude surprise.

When was the last time you read the regulations? You and the government have entered into a contract; the government grants you various privileges and you in turn agree to help out with emergency communications; it's the only form of communications specifically mentioned.

There's no such thing as a free lunch; Amateur radio is not a hobby, it's a 'Service' (check the regs). We're allowed to use commercially valuable portions of the spectrum because we've made a contract to provide a needed service during a disaster.

California has a higher ratio of hams than the national average. But numbers alone don't tell the story. Southern California attracts a lot of retirees and that includes hams. The average age of hams in this region is nearly sixty, almost twice the median age of Southern Californians. Disasters have a nasty habit of killing the young and the old. Chances are, the typical Southern California ham is more likely to be a casualty of the Great Quake than an asset for its relief.

What can we do to prepare? We can make ourselves younger. I know it sounds silly but follow me through. The typical ham recruits his friends; people he knows. Over the years the average age of American hams has climbed and so has the age of the new licensees. It's a natural trend but a deadly one for the future of amateur radio. The only way to reduce our average age is to bring in a lot of younger people. A large number of younger hams in and of itself will determine the future direction and usefulness of amateur radio. For this reason alone many older hams, while giving lip service to recruiting goals do little to actively support such programs. As we get older things seem to speed by more quickly. Constant change is the normal state for the young but often spells trouble for the old. Many of our hams retired here with the hope of spending their closing years in peaceful reflection, not high-tech confusion.

If we are to weather the storm of a Great Earthquake, we need hundreds of high speed stations; fully portable stations capable of being on the air within minutes after the quake. Each station should be completely self-contained with a minimum endurance of ten days.

Low power (VHF/UHF) causes many hams to shake their heads.

Under traditional schemes they had high power and handhelds and little in between. Modern disaster communications doesn't need high power, it needs high capacity networks; the ability to pump large volumes of data from many points to a few central points. VHF-FM with data rates of 300 to 1200 bits per second is ideal for this task. Without a widely distributed, high capacity network the information tap is shut off and decisions made by default instead of design.

One final chore for ham radio. Modern Disaster Management requires the capture, storage, manipulation, communication and display of vast quantities of data. Many relief functions are highly automated and must be spoken to in the proper format and syntax to make them respond.

A large part of disaster preparedness involves learning the necessary language and procedures to communicate effectively with diverse agencies. This complex structure has evolved over many years but hams are largely ignorant of it. We, the "Communicators of Last Resort", have failed to keep up to date in the one type of communications we've been specifically asked to perform.

In the modern world the stakes of disaster management are very high. If Southern California is not swiftly returned to full productive capacity, the economy and possibly even the defense of our nation will be at risk.

The final analysis reveals this horrendous responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of one man, one key ham. You.

Are you a part of the problem or a factor in its solution?

Do you know your role in the local disaster plan? Is it a good plan? Or are you one of those hams who casually ducks his responsibilities by saying you'll be there if you're needed.

No 'ifs' about it, old man---you're needed. But you're needed now, before the event. Hams who wander in waving their ticket are about as welcome as a finger in the eye. It doesn't matter is you swat out CW at thirty words a minute, an unlicensed kid with a VIC-20 can handle 50 words per second and pick his nose at the same time.

If you don't know the language, if you don't know the organization, you just don't know enough to be useful.

If you're under fifty, you're going to see the big quake.

Your task is to prepare yourself and your family; if you and your equipment don't survive you can't help anyone else. Learn your role in the plan and get your station ready.

If you're over fifty, your task is more demanding. You probably won't live to see the Great Earthquake but your legacy could mean the survival of amateur radio. Your task, if you are willing to accept it, is to see your skills and the essence of your experience passed safely into younger hands.

Summing up: Amateur Radio is facing the most critical test in its history, a trial imposed by a cataclysmic natural event. Failure may be the deathblow for ham radio and for thousands of innocent victims.

It's ironic. Hams are always helping someone else; for almost 75 years we've given of ourselves at home and abroad, during desperate wars and fragile periods of peace. If help was needed, we were there. Disasters have a way of making brothers of us all, wiping away questions of politics, race and nationality. But if we are unprepared for the Great Earthquake, history will record that the only group we ever failed to help was ourselves.

---Robert S. Hoover, KA6HZF

The preceding are excepts of a paper titled "The California Earthquake" by Robert S. Hoover, Amateur Radio licensee KA6HZF. A copy of the article in its entirety is available by sending a SASE to:

Stanly E. Harter, KH6GBX
Governor's Office of Emergency Services
2800 Meadowview Road
Sacramento, CA 95832

BULLETIN 029 ERRATA Date: Sep. 12, 1988

To date, the author's references to age was the most stimulating and controversial. Guest articles do not necessarily reflect the position or practices of this office. Our intent in running this series was to stimulate discussion, motivate managers and volunteers, and generate proactive and remedial actions.

The following changes are submitted by the author and others to the State RACES BULLETIN series 029A-029H titled "The California Earthquake" by Robert S. Hoover, KA6HZF. We thank the author and others who make contributions to and share their interest in the weekly California State RACES BULLETINS.

  • 1. Reference the first paragraph (029A), State OES Director of Public Affairs and Information Tom Mullins says: "Over the next 30 years the likelihood of a 7.5 magnitude or larger event in Southern California is 60 percent or greater; the probabilities of a magnitude 7.0 or larger earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area in the next three decades are estimated to be 50%. An earthquake is not necessarily inevitable in the next 30 years."
  • 2. Reference RACESBUL.029D, the second paragraph should read: Knowledgeable disaster managers would like to use hams in the Disaster Assessment role but find few who are young enough.

    It is a physically demanding job that requires many skills in addition to the ability to communicate. Given the time window of the event, training expended on older hams will be largely wasted.

  • 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.


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