In times of trouble, hamsters to the rescue

It was a bitter winter morning and his hands were freezing, but former Mammoth Lakes Police Department officer Paul Dostie was in his element.

One hand on a radio handset, another on a yellow legal pad, the sounds of a Vietnamese pop song came across his ham radio from thousands of miles away, tinny and scratchy in the background, he listened intently as orders from Mammoth Hospital came in over the wire.

“We are in lockdown,” came the message. “Only family members will be allowed in. All people must check in to the front desk.”

He took the message down carefully, word for word, and then sent it winging south toward Northern Inyo Hospital where one of his fellow amateur ham radio operators received it and then hand delivered the message to waiting doctors and nurses.

A few minutes later, another message came through, more urgent this time.

“Symptoms to seek medical treatment for: Severe dehydration, light-headedness, sudden blood loss.”

Soon after came the detailed instructions on what to do next and again, he wrote it down, then sent the new message south to Inyo County.

In the background, on the back seat of the truck, the big ham radio he’s owned and operated for years hummed and crackled, powered by gasoline, unhinged and free from the all-too-fragile modern communications world that is powered by electricity and cell towers, land lines and broadband fiber optic cables.

It was Nov. 21 and although this was only this years’ annual statewide test of the state’s emergency preparedness in case of a massive disaster, Dostie knew the radio waves ham radio operators use can get the word out when nothing else is working, serving as a critical yet rarely used link in a fragile communication system that has become increasingly vulnerable to disruption, even as it becomes increasingly sophisticated.

“The first time ham radio was used was in World War II,” Dostie said. “It was a way to avoid the problems of terrain, like hills, that were blocking other radio signals. Ham radio waves are able to bounce up and hit the ionosphere, then drop back down like an umbrella to the ground.”

The ham radio’s primitive technology also makes it relatively easy to troubleshoot and fix, something he found himself doing on that snowy day in November, with his truck parked in the frigid parking lot.

He strung up a wire high above his head, using a tree and ladder, then allowed it to touch the ground and lay flat on the ground for a few dozen feet.

That simple action can increase the ability of the radio in his truck to pick up signals, he said, and it didn’t take any more equipment than a hammer, ladder and the wire.

Modern communication’s vulnerability is something that the former police officer, no stranger to emergencies, knows well and a that is why, he said, a few months ago when he heard about the statewide test, he asked if the amateur radio club he belongs to, the Bishop Amateur Radio club, or BARC, could be part of it.

Dr. Rick Johnson, the public health officer for Mono and Inyo counties, was the primary coordinator for the Nov. 21 exercise.

He said he was delighted to have BARC be part of the statewide exercise—the first time in decades that the long-standing club has been involved in the annual exercises in Inyo County and the first time in Mono County.

“When the club came to me a few months ago, and said, ‘Can we help?’ we said, ‘Yes, gladly,’” he said.

“They set up in five different locations in the region and we simulated a communications blackout, like what would be likely in many disasters, such as earthquakes. It was amazing how well it worked when nothing else would.”

He said the amateur radio operators are even more important now, as the Town of Mammoth Lakes reels from losing almost all of the employees that have institutional knowledge of how to respond to an emergency.

“It’s wonderful we have Dan Holler (the interim Town Manager) because he has a background in this area, having been through the Walker River flooding, and Chief Brent Harper (Mammoth Fire Chief), but they are short-staffed so the ham radio operators are a big asset. We hope they will be an even greater part of this in the future.”

Count on it, said Jim Nelligan, a member of the club.

“People all over the state are involved in radio clubs like this,” he said. “Many of us talk everyday and we are spread across most communities in the state. I think we can be a great asset.”

Equipping local agencies and organizations with a simple piece of hardware will make the amateur radio network even more useful in an emergency, he said.

Dr. Mike Karch is a Mammoth Hospital orthopedic surgeon and a champion of local and national emergency preparedness.

Just back from a medical mission to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the island nation, he said ham radio technology can fill a gap like nothing else can in a true emergency.

“Over and over again, we find the lack of communication to be as dangerous, or more, than the things we think of as dangerous, such as falling buildings or disease,” Karch said.

“I am glad to have their help.”