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SIDEWALK SERIES: Amateur radio offers technical assistance during disasters
[August 24, 2010]

SIDEWALK SERIES: Amateur radio offers technical assistance during disasters

Aug 24, 2010 (Moscow-Pullman Daily News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- More than two feet of snow and ice has fallen in 24 hours. Roads are impassable. The power is out. Cell phone towers are frozen over and phone lines are down, knocking out all communications. The city of Moscow is being brought to its knees.

That's when Geoff Billin -- and other hams, or amateur radio operators, like him -- come in to save the day. The 66-year-old Moscow man has been tinkering with amateur radio for the better part of 15 years and is active in ARES, or Amateur Radio Emergency Services.

With public officials unable to communicate effectively internally or with the outside world, they turn to the radio waves and Billin, who coordinates with other hams -- who are able to run their radio equipment on as little as a handful of AA batteries -- to provide communication for area shelters, law enforcement and health officials to effectively deal with disaster.

The scenario is fictional, but by no means is it impossible.

"This isn't plan A or even plan B. This is plan C for when things get really bad," Billin said. "It could happen and has happened in the U.S. and around the world. ... We hope that it wouldn't" but we will be prepared.

Members of ARES have had their share of experience helping out in the face of disasters throughout the years, providing assistance after the 9/11 attacks, following devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan, and in northwest Oregon a couple of years ago when a storm wiped out all phone service, Billin said.

"We like to say we provide communication while the professionals are putting the normal systems back together. We are fortunate it hasn't happened (in Moscow) in a long time," he said. "... Our hope is, if there was some sort of emergency we could help out by helping provide communications if it's down." While Moscow hasn't had any major disasters requiring the aid of hams, Billin said amateur operators did provide assistance in the early 1970s, after the city's telephone exchange station burned, by helping provide communication for three or four days while repairs were being made.

Billin hasn't found himself in the middle of a disaster yet, although he'll be prepared when and if the day comes. However, he has come to the rescue with his handheld mobile transceiver.

"I had one situation in which I reported a motor vehicle problem out in the middle of North Dakota," he said. Billin was able to use his radio to contact complete strangers who in turn contacted local authorities.

Billin got his first taste of amateur radio at age 16 but, he said, "that lasted about a year, then I did other things -- girls, college." About 15 years ago, Billin picked up the hobby for good this time after getting involved with a local search and rescue group that used similar radios. He has since become active in the Palouse Hills Amateur Radio Club, currently serving as the group's vice president.

Billin jokes that he retired four years ago after doing "30 years hard time at the University of Idaho" as a system administrator for Information Technology Services and now is "out on parole." With his new found freedom, Billin has had more time to dedicate to his amateur radio hobby and, more specifically, as it relates to emergency services.

"One of the things that I am doing now is devoting my time and talents to the community and amateur radio is one of those ways," he said.

Billin said there are more than 600,000 hams in the United States, and an estimated 2.5 million worldwide and, according to federal records, there are more than 100 amateur radio operators in Latah County.

Communication can be as simple as contacting someone in the same town to trying to reach someone across the globe -- though Billin said his farthest communication was to Arizona or New Mexico.

The PHARC, which was founded in 1994, meets monthly and meetings are normally attended by a dozen or so people, Billin said. In addition to his duties as the club's vice president, Billin also helps with a once-a-year training course offered to those interested in earning an amateur radio license, and serves as a volunteer examiner, issuing licenses to qualified operators.

For more information about hams and the PHARC, go to

Devin Rokyta can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 252, or by e-mail at

To see more of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit, e-mail, or call 866-280-5210 (outside the United States, call +1 312-222-4544).

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