When Blaine’s annual Christmas tree lighting takes place on Saturday, December 7, a team of ham radio operators will be working quietly in the background, assisting the Blaine Police Department. Equipped with portable radios, volunteers will direct traffic, maintain a presence at closed intersections, monitor crowds and alert police to any medical problems or injuries.
This team of radio operators, known as the Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS), is made up of 26 volunteers trained in the use of amateur or “amateur” radios. They have licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate amateur radios at certain bandwidths or frequencies. The FCC issues different classes of licenses, and there is a test for each class.
Managed by the Blaine Police Department, ACS volunteers provide volunteer assistance at major Blaine events such as July 4th, Christmas Tree Lighting, and the Ragnar Relay Long Distance Race. But their real purpose is to be able to communicate with the outside world in the event of an emergency or natural disaster.
“We provide volunteer labor for the Blaine Police Department,” said Mary Lou Steward, Blaine City Council member and ACS member (call sign KG6BMQ). “But our real goal is that in an emergency, when everything is overwhelmed, we can communicate with the state and with everyone. Cell phones and everything in between will fail in a disaster. Thus, our amateur radios will work and allow us to communicate with the outside world.
According to ACS Director Jim Elston, ACS radio operators will contact the Whatcom County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the event of an emergency. The EOC is located near Bellingham Airport and serves as a focal point for emergency response coordination. “We would talk to them, initiate communications and send status reports or whatever information they needed,” said Elston, whose call sign is KP2X.
Lt. Ryan King is the group liaison at the Blaine Police Department. He said Blaine’s ACS was formed about 12 years ago under the direction of former Blaine Police Chief Mike Haslip. “It was formed around the need for communications in the event of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake,” said Lt. King, whose call sign is K7RGK.
A division of the Blaine Police Department, ACS has a room at the Police Department that contains several of its radios. All the equipment in the radio room is owned by the police, but ACS volunteers installed, maintained and operated the equipment. Some radios are even computerized, allowing operators to type messages that can be sent via amateur radio to Bellingham and beyond. “They’re a lot like emails,” Elston said.
In addition to the police department radio room, ACS also uses a mobile communication van, which is configured identically to the radio room. “We started building it in 2007, and it took a year to build it,” Elston said. “The van can do the same things as the police department radio room. It’s a mirror image of the radio room.
ACS volunteers have practice calls once a week on Tuesday mornings. During calls, one of the team members goes to the Blaine Police Department and calls the EOC and other ACS groups in Whatcom County. The EOC also regularly organizes emergency drills and communication drills.
Among themselves, ACS members have calls on Sunday evenings. “This is for the 20+ members of our group to practice recording,” Steward said. “We just call and say, ‘Yes, I’m here.’ We do it on a list. We will take turns calling each member of the list to ask if they have received the message and if they can recognize that they are present.
In order to carry out its operations, ACS needs a variety of antennas. Indeed, the group communicates using different bands: FM, HF (high frequency), UHF (ultra-high frequency) and VHF (very high frequency). Each band requires a different antenna.
In addition to its antennas, ACS also has a network of repeaters. Repeaters are radios in higher locations that receive communications on one frequency and retransmit them on a second frequency. There are repeaters on Sumas Mountain and the Harvey Road Water Tower, among others.
Last month, a new telephone pole was installed at the Blaine Police Department, which will house eight ACS antennas to be installed by the end of the year. “Each radio in the communications center will be hooked up to an antenna on this pole,” Elston said. “Some antennas will have two radios attached to them.”
The new telephone pole was necessary as the ACS antennas had to be moved from the old town hall in Blaine, which may be demolished in the future. “The city wanted the antennas cut so that if they were to come and demolish the building quickly, our antennas wouldn’t get in the way,” Steward said. “So we have them stored and unusable for the past 18 months, which has limited our ability to communicate with Whatcom County.”
ACS accepts applications for volunteers. Volunteers must undergo a background check and training. Volunteers who do not already have an amateur radio license must agree to obtain their license within six months. To inquire about volunteering, contact Elston at [email protected]