Fleeing a forest fire has often forced some evacuees to leave their pets or farm animals behind. Such was the case during the CZU Lightning Complex fires that ravaged San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in August 2020. Once firefighters evacuated an area, it was closed off, preventing people worried about their animals from returning.
The volunteer group Equine Evacuation, which rescues horses and livestock during local disasters, were then permitted to evacuate the animals — mostly horses, goats, and chickens — and bring them to the county fairgrounds in Watsonville.
Equine’s rescue operations, however, would have been far more difficult and dangerous, if it were not for the ham radio operators present.
John Gerhardt, a ham radio enthusiast who was there, recounted how ham operators provided the communication necessary to ensure the safety of the equine teams on burnt land where falling trees were a constant hazard.
Gerhardt said, “We put a ham radio operator with each Equine Evacuation team and then stayed in touch by radio and kept track where they were and what location they needed to go to and helped make that operation more efficient but mainly, it helped keep everyone safe.”
If anyone ran into trouble, the ham radio operators made it possible to get help readily.
Gerhardt, who is the district emergency coordinator of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service in Santa Cruz, is familiar with how ham radio operators, or hams as they call themselves, have been a perfect help for certain emergencies.
When conventional communication systems fail, ham radios, battery-operated and able to send and receive signals for long reaches (including to the moon and back), become indispensable.
Not surprisingly, in another emergency last January, the winter storms that slammed the Santa Cruz coastline and San Lorenzo Valley, hams were put on standby alert three times.
Gerhardt pointed out that ARES keeps up its on-call status by training constantly for emergency situations.
During the height of the COVID pandemic when hams were not needed, Gerhardt nevertheless maintained their readiness for emergencies all the while adhering to social distancing requirements. Gerhardt devised a variety of radio exercises that could be done without being in the same room. One was a scavenger hunt in which operators would drive around the county and report in information.
Ham operators in the county also keep their skills fresh through sporting events. Most recently the Sea Otter Classic, the world’s largest cycling festival in Monterey County, and the Big Sur International Marathon, also in Monterey, gave hams the experience of providing communication in crucial situations.
In the Sea Otter event, competing bikers traversed the mountains and back country of Fort Ord. Dozens of hams positioned themselves in remote locations of the racecourse and set up their equipment, making sure they could communicate back to the base.
“We would then report on the physical condition of the riders as they went through,” Gerhardt described. “We would also report on the status of the event where the organizers would know how far along the course the bikers were.”
The man so committed to the emergency use of ham radio, Gerhardt, took up the hobby in high school. He earned his license in 1964. With a love of tinkering and “figuring out how things work,” Gerhardt was happy that when he got his license, he was expected to build a ham radio on his own.
But now, he noted, “electronics have gotten so advanced, things are so tiny that you need very sophisticated equipment to build a complicated radio.”
Ham radio, however, was not a hobby Gerhardt always indulged in, especially when he entered the working world. For 30 years, he was an electrical engineer for Plantronics, where he retired as senior director.
A longtime resident of Soquel, he is now 75 and holds the highest class of license for ham radio operators, Amateur Extra.
Communicating during emergencies is just one aspect of the hobby. Other aspects can include contests such as contacting as many stations as one can within a particular time period or contacting as many people in different countries as possible.
Another aspect is building equipment that can bounce radio signals off the moon before connecting to other amateurs. Some hams love tinkering, too, and can set up their radio equipment to run on solar power.
“I enjoy the public service aspects instead,” Gerhardt said. “I like helping people be prepared to communicate in an emergency. What interests me most is organizing people for emergency preparedness.”
Ham radios can be operated for emergency situations by those with only the first level of license, Technical Class.
As someone with the highest tier of licensing, Gerhardt oversees twice-a-week training exercises done entirely via ham radio, with each operator usually at their home. Practice can involve something as simple, though crucial, as rehearsing communication niceties such as not having everyone talking at once so that an urgent message can be heard quickly or not talking too long as to hog the channel.
Gerhardt sees to it that the Amateur Radio Emergency Service is available to all emergency agencies in the county. As a volunteer resource, the group helps the Office of Response, Recovery, and Resilience in its mission to coordinate recovery efforts for disasters, and cooperates with the Communication Emergency Response Team, which, being under FEMA, invariably turns to ham radio operators in the communications end of an emergency.
Last April, at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office in Live Oak, ARES took part in its first training exercise for CERT and is committed to this being a regular training feature.
Communication is not the only area CERT volunteers train in; the others include helping people out of collapsed buildings and administering first aid.
In a big emergency, the Emergency Operations Center at the Sheriff’s Office becomes the hub of activity for public safety professionals from the Red Cross to county and agency staff and public information. An incident commander, chosen to be in charge of emergency operations, may contact as many as half a dozen ham radio operators. These hams are “back-up” communicators, becoming crucial to an emergency when regular communications are down.
Gerhardt performs an extra service to the public by overseeing weekly tests of the county-owned communications equipment at the Emergency Operations Center.
The protocol for ham radio operators during an emergency is to tune in first to a particular radio frequency so they can be contacted, told what is needed, and directed to places where communications need to be improved. There are 70 active members in Gerhardt’s service, all poised to respond when called.
Tireless in his work to promote ham radio operations in an emergency setting, Gerhardt is also the secretary of the Santa Cruz Communications Support, a nonprofit based in Scotts Valley, which accepts donations so the group can purchase better radio equipment and improve emergency preparedness materials.
Radio equipment is lent out to those licensed operators whose equipment have been ruined by the disaster at hand. Two years ago, PG&E gave a sizable donation which was used to buy pop-up shelters for ham radio operators out in the open and for signs and the like. The president of the nonprofit is Karen Corscadden.
An interesting detail of Gerhardt’s life that this writer could not let the reader not know: He changed the lightbulbs in the world’s first computer-generated scoreboard in the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, a job he proudly held while a student at UC Berkeley.