Longtime friends Kyle Burgess (left) and Matt Benjamin are helping the city of Marysville develop a communication system for emergency response. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Longtime friends Kyle Burgess (left) and Matt Benjamin are helping the city of Marysville develop a communication system for emergency response. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

When the cellphones stop working, these guys have a plan

In an emergency, a converted ambulance will be Marysville’s communication hub.

MARYSVILLE — What started as a hobby for longtime friends Kyle Burgess and Matt Benjamin could end up saving lives in Marysville.

If an earthquake hits or a landslide strikes, taking out cell towers, the pair of ham radio operators will be among those who are uniquely qualified to transmit information.

And as volunteers, the two have played an integral part in developing Marysville’s emergency communication plan and have helped outfit the Emergency Operations Center. They were recently named volunteers of the month by Mayor Jon Nehring.

As cities work on emergency response plans and run drills, the biggest hurdle is disseminating information, according to Diana Rose, Marysville’s emergency management officer.

“We wouldn’t be as advanced in communications if we didn’t have them,” Rose said “Having experts in your area helps immensely. It’s vital.”

Burgess and Benjamin have also saved the city money.

Inside the Kismet, a mobile communication hub, are radios able to send a range of communications. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Inside the Kismet, a mobile communication hub, are radios able to send a range of communications. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

“If we were to pay them for this work it would cost tens of thousands of dollars,” Rose said.

Part of that work includes Burgess, a Marysville resident, buying and customizing an old ambulance to be used as a mobile communication hub. Something he longed to do.

The shiny black vehicle is packed with radios able to send a range of communications. It’s WiFi enabled and equipped with GPS navigation. And not forgetting emergency preparedness basics, rations of food and water are stored on board.

Burgess also installed a 42-foot tower used to boost radio signals.

“It’s a huge plus when communicating with radio, the more elevation you have the better off you are,” Burgess said.

He nicknamed the mobile hub Kismet, which means fate, destiny. The name was chosen because the vehicle has the ability to alter outcomes. For example, it can bridge gaps if cell and broadcast towers come down, or be moved around when needed.

“If we are helping people and saving lives we might be changing the future,” he said.

The Kismet had its first official deployment this fall on Vesper Peak with search and rescue teams from Snohomish County. It has also been used during the city’s Strawberry Festival to manage volunteers.

Kyle Burgess (left) and Matt Benjamin were named city of Marysville volunteers of the month in November. The Kismet is a mobile communciation hub the pair has outfitted. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Kyle Burgess (left) and Matt Benjamin were named city of Marysville volunteers of the month in November. The Kismet is a mobile communciation hub the pair has outfitted. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

“I’ve been fortunate in life, and I wanted to do something to give back to the community,” Burgess said.

Burgess and Benjamin met working at Roy Robinson in Marysville. They both have held ham radio licenses for more than two decades and were looking for ways to use the skill once again. An uncle of Burgess introduced him to the equipment when he was a kid.

For Benjamin, when he was growing up his parents used ham radios to communicate before cellphones. Since then, both have acquired mobile devices, but Benjamin and his father still connect over the radio. His mother prefers the modern gadgets.

But the newer technology might not be as reliable as radios when an earthquake hits.

In an emergency, passing messages will be vital, Rose said.

“If cell towers go down, 911 could be down for a really long time,” Rose said.

And ham radio operators will be needed to keep information flowing.

Burgess and Benjamin are working with Rose to organize the roughly 200 ham radio operators in Marysville this year.

With eyes on the ground across the community, the city can get out resources quicker, Rose said.

Lizz Giordano: 425-374-4165; egiordano@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @lizzgior.

More info

It is recommended households store two weeks’ worth of water and food in case of an emergency. Folks can also get involved with Washington state’s Map Your Neighborhood or take your city’s Community Emergency Response Team class. Find out more at bit.ly/SNOHO. In Marysville go to the city’s website — www.marysvillewa.gov.

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