‘Ham’ radio operators were called on to put skills to use

BRIER — It was Sunday, March 23 — the day after the Oso mudslide.

Volunteers from the Emergency Services Coordinating Agency in Brier got the call.

They were needed at the disaster, about 50 miles away.

Some of the volunteers are trained to operate amateur or “ham” radio. Some do basic emergency response. Some do both.

Those are the skills the volunteers brought to the slide, where they helped comfort people in shelters, catalog and organize recovered property, and keep things organized for the command staff.

There was little phone service in Darrington at first.

“They really needed the ham radios out there,” said Dan Good, who recently left the agency to take a job with the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

The team set up in Arlington, Darrington and Everett, to create a backup communication network.

Some of the group’s volunteers were assigned to the Arlington emergency shelter, to keep out those who showed up for the wrong reasons.

The team worked closely with the American Red Cross. Many of them volunteer with both organizations.

“We were out in the weather,” said volunteer Sally Page. “We operated from our cars or in some cases, handhelds (radios).”

They also helped people who came to donate. Neighbors brought the contents of emptied closets and freshly cooked meals. Small children lugged plastic bags of donations.

They escorted displaced families into the emergency shelters.

The ham radio operators worked in shifts. They arrived early and stayed late. They’d leave home at 3 a.m. to get to Darrington.

The volunteers helped stack donations and connect people with Federal Emergency Management Agency and other resources.

They wore bright yellow vests.

“We look fairly official. Some of the people just needed to talk,” said volunteer Tom Hawkins, 69, of Edmonds.

People searching in the debris field would come back, covered in mud, and Hawkins knew that everyone was working together toward a common goal, he said.

“Just how many people just came up and said, ‘Thank you for being here,’” he said. “That’s what made it worthwhile.”

They used the radios to relay information, like what supplies were needed and how many people were in each shelter at a given time.

The radio signals bounced off the mountains surrounding Darrington. So they’d look for sweet spots, where the signals were clear, said volunteer Leo Notenboom, 56, of Woodinville.

At one point, weeks after the slide, the team met with others who had responded to the disaster, to talk and to share their experiences.

“It was like unloading gunny sacks,” said volunteer Bill Westlake, 71, of Edmonds.

The group went around the room, letting each person talk.

Everyone had done something different — something that mattered — for someone else.

Good remembers helping a man who had lost his adult son in the slide.

“This man had the clothes on his back, lost his son, looked very, very beaten,” Good said. “There was no other place I’d rather be in the world than here helping him and other people like that.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

The Emergency Services Coordinating Agency, based in Brier, has dozens of volunteers, including ham radio operators, who provide services for charity events, such as bike rides and fundraiser walks, in addition to emergency-preparedness work and disaster response.

The group serves 10 cities in south Snohomish County and north King County. Ham radio classes and licensing tests are available.

More info: esca1.com, 425-776-3722

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