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 Flooding.
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, WA2AGE, WA6LZO, W6CFG, N6ECT, KE6CD, KG6VH, WB6PMS, N6DBZ, W6LRT, 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
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