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A Van for All Seasons : Ham Radio Enthusiasts Outfit Emergency Command Post


SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS — It will be a ham radio operator's dream machine: a converted 1975 delivery van loaded with high-tech goodies, which can be taken to a disaster site and used as a last-resort communications center.

With a couple flicks of a switch, someone inside the van could transmit sound and video images to China or the North Pole. Even into space.

But, when finished next month, the van will mostly be used for more practical purposes: as a roving command post during earthquakes, floods or other local emergencies in the Santa Monica Mountains area, from Hidden Hills to Malibu.

Volunteers organizing the system and Sheriff's Department officials say it could provide a vital link when communications are lost, sometimes because of the sheer volume of transmissions, in an emergency.

The van, several radios, video equipment, solar panels and a generator are owned and operated by the Disaster Communications Service, which has about 1,700 volunteers in Los Angeles County ready to assist the Sheriff's Department during a large-scale disaster or public event.

It's an ad hoc group of electronics enthusiasts, overgrown Boy Scouts and others with a passion for preparedness, perhaps the most pragmatic segment of a population that sends gossip and personal messages skipping through the ionosphere.

The van will be based at the sheriff's Lost Hills/Malibu Station. Its backers say it will be the most sophisticated of its kind in the north county area. Most of the equipment has been donated; organizers continue to seek contributions.

Moreover, every sheriff's station in Los Angeles County has its own communications room set up for volunteers from the Disaster Communications Service, an outgrowth of the Cold War-era Radio Amateur Communication Emergency Service (RACES) network.

Although fears of a devastating attack against the United States have faded, thousands of RACES members are on standby nationwide to relay information in a disaster--more reliably than by telephone. But local disaster service volunteers are often called on at least once a month.

"When something big hits, these guys are oftentimes our eyes and ears out there," said Sgt. Larry Bryant, who coordinates the disaster service program for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "We don't hesitate to call them if we're going to need a lot of communications, especially interagency communications."

The volunteers at command posts and sheriff's stations were often the first sources of information during the floods, the Landers and Big Bear earthquakes and the riots of 1992. Several sheriff's stations temporarily lost phone service during the riots, and deputies relied almost entirely on ham radio communications, Bryant said.

In the region served by the Lost Hills/Malibu Station, the DCS chapter is especially large, with about 350 volunteers, and especially active, because of seasonal floods, fires and mudslides.

"Are we anxious to have this van up and running?" said local volunteer Jeff Reinhardt, who is helping to outfit the vehicle. "You could say that. I can hardly wait."

Even before the van reaches the scene of an emergency, three or four volunteers inside will be able to begin passing information between law enforcement, rescue and government agencies and other disaster service members.

Once there, the crew will be able to send phone, fax, computer and radio messages, as well as live video images from the ground or from helicopters to sheriff's headquarters, without the use of commercial power.

"In almost all cases, the ability to go out to an area where there's a brush fire or a lost hiker or anything like that and let headquarters be in the loop is really key," Bryant said. "And it's something we might not be able to do ourselves, with our current budget situation."

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