Newsline LogoThe following is from the Amateur Radio Newsline Report Number 1779.

Listen to the MP3 file: Newsline Report: San Diego Power Failure.

Read the transcript below.


A ham radio operator uses his knowledge of two-way radio to supplement communications when power goes out and a fail-safe 800 MHz system fails.  Bill Pasternak, WA6ITF, is in the newsroom with the details:

According to news reports, the power mains problem began near Yuma, Arizona.  Affected by the September 8th blackout were parts of southern California, southwestern Arizona and northern Mexico.  All of these areas share the same power grid and in southern California alone some 8 million customers lost electric service.  And when the lights went out in San Diego, so did parts of the region’s 800 MHz shared emergency communications network.

The problem that arose was that in some North County service areas, mobiles in the field could not hear their dispatchers. In other places the dispatchers could not communicate with mobile stations.  But thanks to some thoughtful planning by North County Fire Battalion Chief Don Stevens, KF6ATL, and a combination of ham radio know-how and an ageing commercial VHF radio system, not all was lost:

KF6ATL: “Probably 15 years ago most of the Fire Departments in North San Diego County were on the VHF system.  Subsequent to that, San Diego County, for inter-operability reasons, built a Regional Communications System that they call the RCS system. It’s a Motorola system like other Motorola systems throughout the United States.

“Before we went to the system we are dispatched on at present, we [North County Fire Protection District] were one of the last holdouts to go onto the 800 MHz system.  And when we did that, one of the decisions that a couple of us made was not only to keep our [VHF] licenses, but also to turn our then remote-base transmitters into repeaters.  We felt that we were not going to do what a lot of other cities did and that was to completely get rid of their VHF infrastructure altogether.”

Stevens tells Newsline that while his department is a part of the county-wide 800 MHz system, when the switch-over took place he decided to keep the San Diego North County VHF system as a back-up:

KF6ATL:  “We had about 6 or 7 frequencies licensed to what was then the Fallbrook Fire Department which is now the North County Fire Department, and slowly but surely I took those licenses and turned three of them into what we call “Command Channels” or “Command Frequencies” and we strategically located [repeaters] on mountaintops throughout North San Diego County.

“One of the first repeaters we put up was at a place called Buffalo Bump.  It’s on Camp Pendleton.  It was followed by a same-licensed repeater up on Palomar Mountain and then another frequency located on Red Mountain, all within eye-sight of Fallbrook.

“And then I have one other repeater that I consider a low level repeater located in downtown Fallbrook.”

That forward planning by KF6ATL paid off when the power failure hit:

KF6ATL: “I was off on the day that the 800 MHz failure occurred with the power outage.  Luckily, one of my counterparts who works for the City of San Marcos,Dave Schloss,recognized that there was a failure and, like myself,he realized that we needed to do something with our 800 system to have redundancy.  So he reacted quickly and called the Dispatch Center and started moving all the traffic over to my North County Fire VHF repeaters.”

We asked Stevens if his experience as a radio amateur helped in the pre-planning of the North County VHF radio back up system:

KF6ATL: “Pretty much everything that I’ve done, I’ve done myself.  I’ve taught myself how to program repeaters.  The only thing that I didn’t do was to hang the antennas.”

In the end, Stevens hopes other communities will do as his did and make certain that some sort of backup emergency radio system is in place.  This, just in case the unthinkable happens and the primary system fails.

For the Amateur Radio Newsline, I’m Bill Pasternak, WA6ITF, in the studio in Los Angeles.

If nothing else, this is another incident that proves putting all emergency communications eggs into a single, supposedly fail-safe system that can very easily fail, is not a very good idea.