Emergency response broadened by Mount Barnabe repeater

01/30/2014

Mount Barnabe has helped protect West Marin since 1940, when the county fire department established a lookout on the 1,466-foot summit to spot threads of smoke below. Since then, antennas fostering quick communication for county and federal agencies have been mounted there, too. Last Friday, communications engineer Richard Dillman added one more: an unassuming white rod that will strengthen the West Marin Disaster Council’s emergency radio system. 

Self-sufficiency is key for West Marin. During an area-wide calamity, the region must be able to organize and help itself. Rapid and reliable communication is as critical as skills in first aid, search and rescue and triage. A $32,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency obtained last year funded the council’s purchase of a new repeater, a device that allows the system to radiate across West Marin’s rolling
topography.

“Radio waves don’t go through dirt. So if there’s someone on the other side of the hill, even if you’re separated by less than a mile, you wouldn’t be able to talk to them,” Mr. Dillman said, a self-described “radio obsessive” who also works for KWMR and is president of the area’s Maritime Radio Historical Society.

The new repeater will serve as backup for a Mount Vision antenna, and will strengthen service in Nicasio and the San Geronimo Valley. Together, the two repeaters enable the 115 people trained by the council to tune in on handheld radios that look like simple walkie-talkies but cost $500 a piece. 

Smaller repeaters enable communications within Nicasio and Inverness. Bolinas, Stinson Beach and Muir Beach share a third repeater, and a fourth is planned for the San Geronimo Valley. With simpler and less expensive radios, residents in these communities can coordinate among themselves in the event of a disaster. A point person can hop on the main channel using the Barnabe or Vision repeater and connect with a communications hub set up at the Point Reyes fire house, where the message could be relayed to an official responder with the Marin Emergency Radio Authority, or MERA.

“I’ve got West Marin wired up like a pinball machine,” Mr. Dillman said, adding: “I hope. We’ll find out.” West Marin, which has survived flooding and landslides, also sits precariously atop the San Andreas Fault, meaning major catastrophe could strike at any moment.

Jim Fox, the chief of the Inverness Volunteer Fire Department, said he carries his disaster radio on him at all times, though he “might not have it turned on all the time like Richard Dillman does.” 

Mr. Fox recounted a recent emergency training session he conducted. When he called out to the radio guru over the Mount Vision repeater to demonstrate how the system worked, Mr. Dillman answered immediately. 

The repeater on Mount Barnabe sits in a humble, sloped-ceiling closet on a 1970s-style burnt-orange ombré carpet. The closet is attached to the fire lookout’s bedroom, where a permanent summer lookout used to sleep. (Today’s volunteers infrequently spend nights there.) Cables snake through a hole in the ceiling, one tying the repeater to the antenna up above that will snatch and broadcast voices when catastrophe strikes. 

Considering its critical job, the repeater takes up a miniscule amount of space inside what looks like a hollowed-out black filing cabinet. It has one main button, the power switch. A set of six white cylinders ensures that when the repeater transmits a signal, it does not interfere with all the other circulating signals, and those signals do not interfere with it. 

Mr. Dillman said the disaster council was lucky to be able to locate its antenna on Barnabe, where there is a generator that will keep the repeater on if the main power supply is cut off. 

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without Marin County Fire,” he said, adding that he has to get a key from the agency every time he visits the lookout. “If you have the trust of these guys who are busy doing this tremendous job that they do, that just is so meaningful to me.” Mr. Dillman said he almost lost the key one time while on Barnabe, but, quite fortuitously, he found it in the dirt. 

On Monday morning, Mr. Dillman—wearing Carhartt pants and a belt buckle bearing the letters KPH, the name of an old Morse code radio station—heaved a cement block into the repeater closet to balance the weight of the equipment inside.

“The equipment is weighted towards the front, so it tends to fall over,” he said. “I thought this was a straightforward
solution.”

Mr. Dillman emphasized the simplicity of the radio system, which makes it reliable and easier for citizens to use. But the analog system has its limits. With MERA, which is computerized, those who want to use the channel are placed in a queue; with the council’s system, everyone waits for an opening to speak into a single channel. 

“You’ve got a potential for cacophony,” said Mr. Dillman, who after years of working with radios can hear a particular kind of static, akin to a squeal, that indicates others are also vying to use the channel. “In the first hour or two of a real emergency, or, god forbid, a disaster, it will happen on this system, on any system. That is just how it is. But then it calms down, discipline is maintained, someone steps up as traffic cop and things even out.” 

Mr. Fox acted as that traffic cop during the 2005 New Year’s Eve flood, he said.

The potential for chaos is why Mr. Dillman stresses the need for “communications discipline” among those trained to use the system. They need to state what is needed and where, and then “get the heck off the radio.” 

Mr. Fox echoed the point. “Radio time is precious. You want to make sure you’re concise, not doing some sort of stream-of-consciousness stuff.”

Before leaving Barnabe on Monday, Mr. Dillman pulled out his radio and began tuning into different repeaters like a father checking in on his brood. “All my little babies out there,” he said as he keenly tuned into the static.