PACKET RADIO: Notes from the '86 CA Floods

Steve Wolf, W8IZ@W8IZ

(This text from the W8IZ packet radio bulletin

board. It's formatted to fit a 80 character screen.)

This article appeared in "World Radio News", May 1986
                Disaster Welfare Traffic Speeded Via Amateur 
                Packet Volunteers During 1986 California 
        Amateur radio packet mailboxes and digipeaters are playing a vital 
role in providing information nationwide on the welfare of lost family and 
friends during the devasting floods of February 1986 in  Northern California. 
Hardest hit were Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Sacramento, Yuba, and Sutter Counties 
where the President has declared a State of Emergency. Amateur radio operators 
worked 24 hour shifts, many into exhaustion to provide what was in many cases 
the only communications in and out of flooded and isolated towns. All  have 
sacrificed and given a service to their community without renumeration other 
than the knowledge that they performed a service that no others could provide 
when it was needed the most. These radio communicators in the highest sense of 
the word should be held in high esteem for their humanitarian effort. Packet 
radio was used throughout the flooding in most of these  counties providing 
direct communications with the State Office of Emergency Services packet 
operations located at State RACES Headquarters near Sacvramento as well with 
the California Department of Forestry, The American Red Cross district and 
command Headquarters, as well as many Red Cross Chapters.
         Normally when the emergency communications' needs  diminish 
because of the establishment of telephone services the Disaster 
Welfare Inquiry  (DWI) traffic begins to be released by the Red Cross 
therefore allowing inquiries from families and friends who have been worrying 
about the victims to be answered.
         Such service is often delayed because of unavailable telephone lines, 
the overworking of already fatigued amateurs, and the lack of volunteers at 
the disaster sites to organize such a service in a timely fashion. However, in 
this disaster a new element was added thanks to a lively Sacramento Packet and 
ARES group and also to the willingness of the American Red Cross to attempt 
try something new. 
        On February 20 NI6A was contacted by N6DRT, who is the Chairman of the 
Communications Advisory Committee of the American Red Cross Western Operations 
Headquarters, ECAC member from the Pacific Division and a member of the  DWI 
Task Force at Western, to see if we can setup a packet DWI system to the 
flooded chapters. By February 21, despite lack of telephone service, we had 
established liaison with Napa, Sonoma, Solano, and Santa Cruz Red Cross. The 
plan was to have stations check into the NI6A-1 (W6CUS-1) mailbox located at 
the Richmond Red Cross twice a day to look for DWI outgoing traffic for their 
chapters that would be entered directly from W6MLK located at the Red Cross 
Flood Headquarters for Northern California at the San Francisco Red Cross. 
Since this was the first time the DWI teams had interfaced with packet digital 
systems there were some major startup problems to overcome but the experience 
was edifying for both sides. The Sutter and Yuba County DWI traffic was put on 
the NI6A-1 mailbox at 4 PM on Sunday  February 23 and replies started coming 
back via this same mailbox by 2030 PST that same day. This hailed in a new era 
where  DWI traffic could make the rounds even while telephone service into the 
area (Yuba County in this case) was nearly impossible. 
       Packet offered decided advantages over older systems. It was error free 
and fast (1200 Baud). It did not require recopying the messages by hand at 
each node and thus was less fatiguing. While the old system was run with TWIX 
machines at 110 Baud and required to be retyped again into a data base, packet 
zoomed in at 1200 Baud and could be integrated with existing computer data 
bases and could be relayed and sorted without retyping. But one of the 
greatest advantages of packet was that it didn't tie up needlessly valuable 
and rare communications'personnel. By using the mailbox as the carrier method,
we avoided having to tie operators up on any one time or frequency and 
allowed them to check the mailbox at any convenient free times that they had. 
Messages and updates were left and inquiries and replies were left and picked 
up. The Red Cross crews were also freed up to work around time flexible hours, 
thus traffic was allowed to flow without making any great demand on personal 
schedules nor interfering with higher priority traffic. The path was adequate 
on 5.09 for all the flooded Counties  except that it was marginal for 
Sacramento and Yuba due to heavy loading in the San Francisco Bay region so 
some traffic was forwarded from NI6A-1 to WA6NWE-1  mailbox in Sacramento 
which is also on  145.09 MHZ. 
        Much more could have been done and much quicker as is usually the 
case. One must say that the Sacramento, Yuba/Sutter DWI teams were the best 
prepared that have ever been encountered previously. The Sacramento ARES 
packet operators were the most skilled, knowledgeable and best equipped and 
that their many months of packet experience really showed through when the job 
needed to be done. Besides providing this service this experience has further 
solidified the relationship between packet radio and the American Red Cross 
and hopefull now has created the groundwrork for an integrated DWI plan 
utilizing packet radio and highspeed telephone modems and computer data base 
programs integrated with communications ability. 
        Certainly there were many disaster operators I will miss, but 
I'd like to thank some of the DWI packet operators who worked so hard 
to make this pioneering effort work: K6RTV, K6QIF, WA6NWE, K6PWA, 
W6LKE, KX6Z. As the DWI messages continue to pour out of the national 
wires and replies continue to come back via amateur packet radio, the 
final effort and results are not yet realized. Thanks to a great crew
with great patience and dedication!
Don Simon, NI6A, 
Communications Chairman, Disaster Services, 
Berkeley/West Contra Costa County Chapter

Return to Packet FAQuette Index