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Pandemic Project: Trailer renovation allows for extended emergency radio assistance

Frank Hutchison’s pandemic project started with a question: how could he better help communities during emergencies like natural disasters?

“I’m an Assistant Emergency Coordinator for the Spokane County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES)/Auxiliary Communication System (ACS),” he said. “In this role, I needed to be able to deploy to any location and provide emergency communications including for extended periods of time.”

For example, two years ago during the wildfires in Oregon, a call went out for radio operators. Without a place to sleep, eat, or operate his UHF/VHF (ultra-high frequency/very high frequency), and HF (high frequency, formerly known as short-wave) radios, he felt he’d be more of a burden than a help.

At 71, the retired Navy commander and former Boy Scout leader said it became obvious that tent-camping and sleeping rough was no longer wise. He decided to look for a trailer to build out to his specific needs.

Hutchison’s son, Richard, had introduced him to the world of amateur radio three years ago.

“My son said he was coming to Spokane for the annual Hamfest event and he was going to pay for me to take the amateur radio license test,” explained Hutchison.

He passed it and went on to take and pass two additional tests. However, he still didn’t own a radio.

“Richard fixed that,” he said. “As soon as I passed the tests he gave me one.”

But the hobby quickly proved addictive.

Hutchison grinned.

“I now have 14 radios.”

Not content to be a hobbyist, he quickly became involved in the Amateur Radio Relay League, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (through Spokane County Department of Emergency Management), as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints communication system. All told, he’s completed 220 hours of training in the past three years.

“I have a terrible habit of every time I get involved in something, I end up in leadership,” he said.

After months of searching for a suitable trailer finally in October 2020, his daughter found one on Facebook.

“It’s a 1961 151/2-foot Santa Fe camper trailer that had been gutted by a previous owner,” he said. “A blank slate for me.”

He’d written a list of specifications and using that, he began to work on it in February. His naval experience came in handy.

“One of the last courses I took in the Navy was submarine design,” Hutchison said.

He gestured to the trailer parked at his Spokane Valley home.

“I used a lot of that knowledge in this.”

The first thing he created was a built-in communication center for three radios. He tucked them neatly under a cabinet holding supplies and installed a slide-out desktop. Two heavy-duty rechargeable batteries, each capable of 100 amp-hours are stored in a cupboard above a file drawer. Two 200-watt solar panels on the roof power the lights inside the trailer. When electric power is available, handy USB ports can charge phones and computers.

Hutchison’s wife, Mary Lynn, enjoyed helping to furnish the interior.

“She insisted on a water closet,” he said, grinning.

Those facilities, plus a compact kitchenette mean they can use the trailer to go visit grandkids, too.

Their granddaughter Lorelei Hartley, 13, did all the roof work for her grandpa, including replacing the vent.

For Hutchison, the importance of amateur radio is simple.

“It works when everything else fails,” he said. “When cell towers and power lines go down during a natural disaster, these radios keep us connected.”

A vast network of repeaters, plus satellites, enables communication around the globe.

“I can even hook up a computer to my radio and send email,” he said.

A trial run at an emergency exercise through his church in October proved enlightening.

“I came up with a long list of things that needed to be fixed, but I finished it about six weeks ago.”

Hutchison paused.

“It’s still not complete–it’s kind of like having a boat.”

While he’s not worried about a natural disaster incapacitating the Spokane region, he’s glad he’s able to offer assistance if needed.

“It gives me the capability of helping others. I can support local and state-wide emergency communications for one week without any outside support.” said Hutchison. “It’s one of those things you hope you’ll never have to use.”


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