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'The last one standing'

Jim Norton works on part of the ham radio tower as another portion is raised.
Jim Norton works on part of the ham radio tower as another portion is raised. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
New equipment strengthens ability to communicate after any disaster

Sick of hearing about scientists’ prediction that  much of the northern West Coast, including Del Norte, is due for a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami?

Well, local emergency officials are far from sick of reminding you, and they continue to beef up emergency infrastructure for when “the big one” strikes.

Last weekend, a 59-foot ham radio tower engineered to withstand a large earthquake was installed at the headquarters of the Del Norte Amateur Radio Club  located at the Del Norte American Red Cross building.

“In a big disaster, ham radio has been proven to be that one  form of communication that is always the last one standing,” said Cindy Henderson, Emergency Services Manager for Del Norte County, adding that cell phone towers are likely to go down in an earthquake.

During Hurricane Katrina, ham radio was the last communication available, Henderson said, adding, “Ham radio is one of those things that is going to save lives.”

Finally ‘up to snuff’

Fred Wagner, president of the Del Norte Amateur Radio Club, said that his members could easily communicate to neighboring Humboldt and Curry counties and even countries on the other side of the planet before the latest improvements, but the repeaters that make it possible are likely to fail during an earthquake. Now the system is bullet-proof, expected to remain operable even if the Red Cross building is destroyed by an earthquake.

“Things were just not up to snuff,” Wagner said of the old tower.  “This one is more sturdy, rugged and capable of doing what we need it do.”

The tall tower allows direct, “line-of-sight” (at least in radio terms) communication with towers in Brookings and Eureka, avoiding the need for repeaters likely to fail in an earthquake.

The new radio equipment includes an HF antenna that has five bands in HF range; a few two-meter VHF antennae; and a VHF and UHF combination antenna. Many of the new antennae are capable of rotating at the top of the $4,000 tower in order to precisely target communication toward a particular point on the globe.

A new $5,200 linear amplifier allows radio communication to be sent at 1,500 watts, cutting through all other radio traffic to reach far-flung officials during an emergency.  More than $5,000 was spent on new radio equipment for the tower and the club’s station as well. 

To fund all of the improvements, the Del Norte Amateur Radio Club received a $10,000 Emergency Management Performance Grant from the California Office of Emergency Services. 

More than $5,000 in additional  funding came from leftover grants  given to the county from the federal Homeland Security Department.

The close cooperation between the local radio club and emergency response officials in Del Norte County is the envy of our neighbors, Wagner said.

“We are kind of the model — Curry County is looking at us to establish such a system,” Wagner said.

“I truly believe that Del Norte ham radio is on the forefront of disaster preparedness,” said Henderson.

Doug Gustafson, left, and Jaime Yarbrough work on part of the antenna before it is raised.
Doug Gustafson, left, and Jaime Yarbrough work on part of the antenna before it is raised. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Hobby with vital function

Although people most often get into ham radio as a hobby, operators are fully aware of the potential to contribute in an emergency situation.

“It’s always in the back of our minds; ready to snap into action when an emergency happens,” Wagner said.

One late night, Wagner was scanning the air waves with HF equipment when he encountered a distress signal from a sailor outside San Francisco who had lost his sail or rudder and only had a back-up engine. Wagner called the local Coast Guard, which contacted Bay Area Coast Guard, and the man was brought to a safe harbor.

“It felt good being able to help someone like that. I never met him or got to see him, but to help someone like that, it felt super,” Wagner said.

More often than not, the ham radio club is engaged in  the type behavior you would expect of tech junkies.

Friday morning, Wagner had scheduled a morse code communication with a man from Norway who has been eager to use his equipment to contact someone located in the hard-to-reach ham radio grid square of CN 71, which includes the Del Norte coast.

Wagner hopes to expand interest in ham radio, perhaps by giving presentations in local schools, showing students that it can be used to contact the International Space Station.

“We want to show people that radio can be fun,” Wagner said.

The Del Norte Amateur Radio Club is open to anyone interested and holds regular events. For more information, visit the club’s website at w6hy.org or contact Wagner at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Crescent City Fire Department, G. R. Construction, and Pelican Bay Amateur Radio Club all contributed time and labor to install the tower last weekend.

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it  

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