Hunched over a desk in a mobile response unit, Whatcom County Auxiliary Communications Services (ACS) member Brian Lawler taps away at a small metal set of keys, carefully constructing a series of dots and dashes that will be relayed across the radio waves. He finishes typing and then holds a pair of headphones to his ear to listen for a response to his coded message. When he hears one, he’s elated. He’s even more excited when the cypher begins to scrawl across the orange screen of the homemade Morse code reader that local ham radio operator Budd Churchwood has put together.
“It’s actually reading the code for us,” Lawler said. “That’s incredible.”
It’s just one of hundreds of radio connections that will be made throughout the 24-hour ACS field day, an annual event where
thousands of amateur radio operators from across the country take to the airwaves to practice their communications skills. “It’s the biggest annual event for radio amateurs,” Lawler said. “It’s a lot of fun for us all to get together and practice.”
Organizations like Whatcom County ACS and Blaine ACS use the 24-hour radio marathon to network with other FCC-recognized radio operators, as well as try out new equipment and meet other locals who share their passion. And while making connections with other amateur radio operators may be fun for the ACS volunteers – they were able to talk with astronauts on the space station at this year’s event – the field day serves a greater purpose: making sure the radio community is prepared for emergencies.
“Most of the work we do during field day is powered-off generators and field antennas,” said Jim Elston, Blaine ACS communications manager. “It really pushes us to work as if we were in an emergency situation and we use opportunities like field day and parades and races to prepare for that,” Elston said. “We’re always practicing and using our equipment so we can be ready for anything.”
The volunteer group was developed to fill a gap in Blaine public safety communications, Elston said, after a 2006 shooting incident at the Peace Arch border crossing left the Blaine police chief in a communications blackout. Elston said the core of their mission is to be the ears and voice for public safety officers when there’s no other way to connect.
“Chief Mike Haslip called me and asked me if I could help him set something up,” said Elston, who had retired from working in radio communications with U.S. Customs. “I said sure. We got together and the first thing we did was design a mobile unit that could be used in the field.”
The mobile response unit, a box van outfitted with radio scanners, headsets and emergency equipment, gives ACS volunteers the ability to set up a command center anywhere they are needed. Once the mobile unit was built, they had to decide who would take care of operations. Since Elston had been in the field for more than 26 years at U.S. Customs, he volunteered for the role of manager and came up with a short list of people who he thought would be interested in the work, including his wife.
Since then the all-volunteer organization has grown to more than 25 members and provides auxiliary support for the police department by manning communications, acting as traffic control and providing first aid and CPR assistance when needed. “Everyone in our unit is first aid, CPR and AED certified,” Elston said. “We go through the same training as the police officers do for that. We actually do it together.” They also coordinate communication efforts between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies so everyone can be on the same page. “There’s a lot of information coming at you all at once,” Elston said. “We act as the filter.”
The volunteer program has worked so well that a group in Point Roberts is following suit and working to establish their own emergency radio communications unit, according to resident Kelly Kiniski, who currently volunteers with both the Blaine and Whatcom ACS groups. “We’re really concerned about emergency management here, since we would essentially be separated from everything if a disaster would occur. We would probably be the last ones to get help because of our location.”
He’s been laying the groundwork by networking with clubs in Canada as well as working with the ACS groups to learn how to communicate if an emergency does occur. He has also started a club on the Point geared toward getting people up to speed on radio communications and emergency management. “We have around 12 people attending regularly right now,” he said. “Seven just passed their radio test, and we have more testing coming up. We’re hoping we can establish something similar to what Blaine has so if there’s an emergency, we’ll be ready.”
For more information about Blaine ACS, visit blaineacs.org or call 360/332-6769.
For more information about Whatcom ACS, call 360/647-8919.
For more information about Kiniski’s radio club, call 360/945-2125. The club meets on the first Tuesday of the month at the Point Roberts senior center.