'Information is everything' - Lake Oswego fire organizes grassroots radio communications network
Sitting behind a table at the Lake Oswego fire station on B Avenue, volunteer emergency communicator Andrew Watson donned a headset connected to a radio that could transmit and receive information from across the community. In one moment he could field calls about a possible car crash near the former Marylhurst campus, before quickly pivoting to reports of downed power-lines blocking a road in the Uplands neighborhood.
After saying "Roger" or "Copy that," he jotted notes detailing the information he'd gleaned and then moved onto the next call or relayed messages from one section of the community to another.
As volunteer Ken Slickers noted: "Information is everything in an emergency."
Watson, Slickers and about 30 other community members participated in a mock radio communications exercise Saturday, June 11, to test Lake Oswego's coordination and radio capabilities in the event of a natural disaster. The purpose of the exercise was to establish a neighbor network, in part because emergency responders would be overburdened during a natural disaster.
"As part of our mantra with (Community Emergency Response Team)training, we want the community in the event of a disaster to be able to take care of themselves," Deputy Fire Marshall David Smith said. "The resources of the police, fire, it's pretty limited in an event of a large-scale disaster… . We want people to work with neighbors to solve problems on their own. That's ideal because it puts less stress and impact on public resources."
Grassroots emergency preparedness efforts have manifested in Lake Oswego at least since the 1990s through the CERT program, according to volunteer Cathy Dausman, and most of the trainees at the event Saturday had previously undergone CERT training. People who complete this training learn how to be self-sufficient when power goes out and service is nonexistent, and part of CERT involves coordination among neighbors.
Local neighborhood associations recently obtained radios through a city grant program.
"The thought (initially) was maybe we'll need teenagers on bikes to run messages … if communications failed," Dausman said. "A couple people said 'Hey, what about radio?' We started training the CERT people in radio use, inside and outside the building down the block around the corner, and it built from there."
Just prior to the 2021 ice storm, Smith began working on a citywide coordination effort based on radio communication. He said that the extreme weather event — which caused areas to go without cell phone service due to the depletion of cell phone tower batteries — reiterated the need for a broader citywide plan.
"It solidified the need for a systematic plan so in the event of a disaster, everyone would know in advance if they had these radios, (and) knew what channel to go to to communicate with folks," Smith said.
Since then, a General Mobile Radio Service repeater was installed at a high point at an undisclosed location in town that allows radio communication over mountains and other blockages.
At Saturday's exercise, community leaders dispersed in four divisions across the city, communicating with each other mostly using FRS radios — which are basic, can allow for communication at short distances and don't require a license to operate — and some GMRS radios (which do require a license) used at the local fire department and by division leaders. The radio network has 22 channels.
"We are talking with everyone from the Westlake area to the Mary's Woods area, up to almost the edges of Portland in the Dunthorpe area," Dausman said.
Each division is responsible for neighborhoods within its purview and neighborhood leaders are supposed to send updates to the division leader, who then sends messages to the central emergency response center at the fire station. They each had their own scripts for providing updates and had to communicate with other neighborhoods while recording their interactions.
"We start in to (identify) which neighborhoods have checked in. Then we start sending them scenarios. We say 'I want you to tell headquarters that there's a street light down and we need stop signs.' There's kids sledding down hill into the traffic or someone with a medical appointment but can't get out of their house," Dausman said. "It's all real world, neighbor helping neighbor (scenarios)."
Ken Slickers, a Lake Oswego resident operating out of WestLake Park, handled most of the communicating while fellow volunteer Michelle Cushing took notes. Slickers described the process of fielding calls and sending information back as overwhelming. He also said he could not contact the Uplands neighborhood, so a reconfiguration to place that neighborhood in a different division might be necessary in the future.
"I also learned how valuable a scribe is. When these things are going, it's fast and furious," he said.
The main development to ensure that the program becomes successful in the future is simply to have more people, participants said. Slickers noted that there were 10 volunteers in his division, which included five neighborhoods. The fire department had hoped to get 50-60 participants during the training exercise and there were a little over half that.
"When we have enough people and radios in a particular area, we can successfully pass that radio traffic from the lowest neighborhood level up to the city. But we have to have enough people in that area," Smith said. "So we had some areas where we had a lower level of participation, and that was a problem for those folks where there was no one for them to communicate to."
Smith added that enhanced technology could also make up for lower participation levels. If more people have GMRS radios, that could require less participation.
"On the education side, we need to probably look at training folks more in how to prioritize certain types of messages. Some messages, what may be a priority to one person is not a priority in the bigger picture. We need to do a bit more training on that," Smith said.
Smith reiterated that the radio system isn't connected to the city's 911 emergency response system. He likened it to crowdsourcing or Facebook groups where people share information about how to find firewood or who has a generator. He hoped to finalize the plan for this citywide effort later this year.
Dausman trained through the city's CERT program in the 1990s, and noted that the training can feel fruitless as a catastrophic natural disaster like the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake has not occurred locally in modern times. But if it does, the preparation could be vital.
"If you don't train and something does happen, it's chickens running around with our heads," Dausman said.
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