When Blaine’s annual Christmas tree lighting takes place on Saturday, December 7, a team of amateur radio operators will be working quietly in the background, assisting the Blaine Police Department. Equipped with portable radios, the volunteers will direct traffic, maintain a presence at closed intersections, monitor crowds and alert police officers to any medical problems or injuries.
This team of radio operators, known as the Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS), consists of 26 volunteers who are trained in the use of amateur or “ham” radios. They have licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate ham radios at certain bandwidths or frequencies. The FCC issues different classes of licenses, and there is a test for each class.
Managed by the Blaine Police Department, ACS volunteers provide volunteer assistance during major Blaine events such as the Fourth of July, the Christmas tree lighting and the Ragnar Relay long distance race. But their real goal is to be able to communicate with the outside world in the event of an emergency or natural disaster.
“We are providing volunteer manpower to the Blaine Police Department,” said Blaine city councilmember and ACS member Mary Lou Steward (call sign KG6BMQ). “But our real goal is that in an emergency, when everything is overwhelmed, we will be able to communicate with the state and with everybody else. Cell phones and everything else will be down in a disaster. So our ham radios will work and allow us to communicate with the outside world.”
According to ACS manager Jim Elston, ACS radio operators will communicate with Whatcom County’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during an emergency. The EOC is located near the airport in Bellingham, and serves as a venue for coordinating emergency responses. “We would talk to them, initiate communications and send status reports or whatever information they require,” said Elston, whose call sign is KP2X.
Lieutenant Ryan King is the group’s liaison at the Blaine Police Department. He said Blaine’s ACS was formed about 12 years ago under the direction of former Blaine police chief Mike Haslip. “It was formed based on the need for having communications if a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, occurs,” said Lt. King, whose call sign is K7RGK.
A division of the Blaine Police Department, ACS has a room at the police department that contains many of its radios. All of the equipment in the radio room belongs to the police department, but ACS volunteers installed, maintain and operate the gear. Some of the radios are even computerized, allowing the operators to type out messages that can be sent via ham radio to Bellingham and beyond. “They are kind of like emails,” said Elston.
In addition to the radio room at the police department, ACS also uses a mobile communications van, which is set up identically to the radio room. “We started building it in 2007, and it took a year to build,” said Elston. “The van can do the same things as the radio room at the police department. It’s a mirror image of the radio room.”
ACS volunteers have practice call-ins once a week, on Tuesday mornings. During the call-ins, one of the team members goes to the Blaine Police Department and calls into the EOC and other ACS groups in Whatcom County. The EOC also runs regular emergency drills and communications exercises.
Among themselves, ACS members have call-ins on Sunday evenings. “Those are for the 20-plus members of our group to practice checking in,” said Steward. “We just call in and say, ‘Yes I’m here.’ We do it on a list. We take turns and will call out each member on the list and ask if they received the message and could acknowledge that they are present.”
In order to carry out its operations, ACS needs a variety of antennas. This is because the group communicates using different bands: FM, HF (high frequency), UHF (ultra-high frequency) and VHF (very high frequency). Each band requires a different antenna.
In addition to its antennas, ACS also has a network of repeaters. Repeaters are radios at higher locations that receive communications at one frequency and re-transmit them on a second frequency. There are repeaters on Sumas Mountain and the Harvey Road water tower, among other locations.
Last month, a new telephone pole was installed at the Blaine Police Department, which will house eight ACS antennas to be installed by the end of the year. “Every radio in the communications center will be attached to an antenna on that pole,” said Elston. “Some antennas will have two radios attached to them.”
The new telephone pole was required because ACS antennas had to be relocated from Blaine’s old city hall, which may be demolished in the future. “The city wanted the antennas down so that if they had to quickly come in and demolish the building, our antennas would not be in the way,” said Steward. “So we have had them stored and not usable, over this last 18 months, which has limited our ability to communicate with Whatcom County.”
ACS is accepting applications for volunteers. Volunteers must undergo a background check and training. Volunteers who do not already have an amateur radio license must agree to get their license within six months. To inquire about volunteering, contact Elston at firstname.lastname@example.org.