Northeast Oregon would go quiet after disaster

<p><span>Members of the Emergency Management Amateur Radio Emergency Service operate from their communications trailer during Saturday's earthquake practice scenario. </span></p>

How would northeastern Oregon communicate if the inevitable Cascadia fault line earthquake hit today?

“I’m thinking by donkey? I’m not sure,” said Oregon Emergency Management communications officer Fred Molesworth.

Saturday brought emergency management agencies from across four states, including the Red Cross, PGE, hospitals, the National Guard, for the largest emergency communications event in Oregon’s history.

The scenario was that dreaded earthquake — a deadly 9.2 on the Richter scale. Pretending to be without power throughout the state, emergency responders turned to amateur radios to communicate.

But northeastern Oregon was notably absent for practice.

“None of the northeastern counties have any significant presence at this time,” Molesworth said. “The critical thing is there is no significant ability to communicate from Wallowa County all the way to the western side of Oregon.”

There is one area man, Gary Cooper, who has kept up with training in emergency communications. As the district emergency coordinator, Cooper’s ground covers all of Umatilla and Morrow counties.

Realistically, the region needs several dozen volunteers to operate effectively.

“It takes some dedication,” Cooper said of volunteering with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. “Unfortunately a lot of people want to be involved but it’s kind of a trick to get them trained for when something happens.”

Much like those without CPR certification who perform resuscitation, amateur radio operators — or HAMs — without ARES training are liable if something goes wrong.

“If they’re not trained, often they become more of a problem than an asset,” Molesworth said of operators who don’t know the standard language and procedures.

Molesworth described a region with no gas, telephone, Internet or cell phones. When the earthquake hits, the entire state — and possibly the entire Pacific Northwest — will be without power. The coastal communities would become islands with bodies floating in the surf.

In Eastern Oregon, buildings would be without heat and supplies in stores would quickly be depleted.

At the moment, the only means of communicating in such a catastrophe is by radio. The simple tool would allow people to request life-saving resources like clean water and generators.

Saturday’s event tested technology that would allow HAMs to send emails through amateur radio. The air wave messages are sent to the nearest amateur radio with Internet capabilities, then bounced to their destinations via the world wide web.

More than 17,000 Oregonians are certified HAMs. Using an amateur radio is easy enough that Molesworth’s daughter became an operator at age seven.

But only a fraction of radio operators are trained, like Cooper, in public service through the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Cooper has been an emergency communicator for the region for 18 years, helping out in wildland fires and isolated vehicle crashes in his tenure.

Northeastern Oregon wasn’t always so depleted of emergency communicators. When Cooper began, more than 20 ARES-trained HAMs worked the region. There was extra caution then because of the deadly chemical weapons housed at the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Those weapons were fully destroyed in 2011.

The region still has plenty of amateur radio emergency equipment left over from the depot days — but nobody to use it.

“It’s been an uphill climb,” Cooper said of keeping an Amateur Radio Emergency Service presence in Eastern Oregon. “Amateur radio is a hobby, but (emergency communication) is not a hobby, it’s a service.”

ARES’ radio communication requires two to three hours per month of training, usually at the Umatilla County Justice Center.

Visit www.arrl.org/ares for more information on becoming an emergency communicator.

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Contact Natalie Wheeler at nwheeler@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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