Updated: Jul 30
May 11, 2022
Imagine this scenario: a fast-moving wildfire wipes out not only power but the internet throughout Marin County. How do first responders communicate with one another? More importantly, how do government officials and community organizations reach the public? So-called ham radio operators may have the answer.
Last month, the Marin Amateur Radio Society and Marin Amateur Emcomm Support announced they had received a $92,000 grant to install a microwave “mesh” radio network in Marin and Sonoma Counties. The network will utilize low-power microwave frequencies allocated to amateur or ham radio operators and will back up emergency communications if a power outage renders the internet unusable. The network is also intended to provide a means of disaster communication for community-based organizations, such as food banks.
The existing Marin Emergency Radio Authority, a collection of public agencies that operates a public safety radio system, also uses microwave frequencies. If it fails, or is operational but the internet is out, the mesh network will become indispensable.
The grant came from Amateur Radio Digital Communications, a nonprofit amateur radio club dating to the 1930s that keeps a clubhouse in Mill Valley. Its Federal Communications Commission-licensed volunteers provide communications support to a dozen large-scale bicycle rides and footraces—including the Dipsea—each year. The society maintains a linked net of mountaintop repeaters enabling voice-radio access to and from all corners of the county.
With the funds, the organizations will identify and install key nodes on hilltops along the 101 corridor from the Golden Gate Bridge north to Healdsburg and beyond. On the coast, nodes will provide service to rural communities from Muir Beach north to Bodega Bay and up to Sea Ranch. The Bay Area Mesh, which already serves emergency operation centers in San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda Counties, will provide equipment and training to place, maintain and utilize the Marin-Sonoma network.
“Mesh networks like this are both a way to offer resilient communications during emergencies and a platform to further explore the development of mesh technology on the amateur radio bands,” said Kristen McIntyre, the Pacific division director of the Amateur Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio operators.
Jeff Young, a Dillon Beach resident and the longtime coordinator for West Marin radio communications volunteers, said the mesh system operates on an “intranet” similar to the internet. “The mesh allows cell towers to connect. It’s super fast, super accurate and it’s customizable and portable,” he said.
If West Marin lost power and the cell towers went down, local groups could communicate through walkie talkies to a ham operator stationed at the Point Reyes Fire Station, for example. Ham radio operators at the school or the Dance Palace could likewise convey messages to organizers there.
“[The mesh network] will support ham radio operators, who support first responders,” Mr. Young said. “The mesh is open to any ham radio operator, just as the internet is open to anyone on a computer.”
Michael Fischer, a coordinator for emergency communications at public service events in Marin, said the new mesh network will be robust, and its intranet system will allow voice messages, email, videos and images to be relayed within the network. Last month, a piece of the new system —using just two nodes — was deployed in a trial run during the Ridge to Bridge race, covering some 500 miles of terrain and 300 equestrians, hikers, bikers and runners.
Mr. Fischer said the ability to monitor events such as this allows radio operators at rest stops along the route to check in with each participant, and to track down those who inevitably get lost. “The only weakness of the mesh,” Mr. Fischer said, “is that it must be operated by ham radio operators licensed by the F.C.C., and there are very few hams in Marin.”
Those interested in training as a ham operator may visit www.arrl.org/licensing-education-training or email Jeff Young at KM6Y@arrl.net.