Volunteer communications group saves city money

Published on Thu, Jul 10, 2008 by Coral Garnick

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Volunteer communications group saves city money

By Coral Garnick

The business of law enforcement in Blaine often requires more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies to be able to communicate with each other. But only recently has that become possible, thanks to the completion of the Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS).

The ACS is a team of volunteers who are experts in communications and related technologies – electronics, radios, telephones and internet services – who work hand in hand with the Blaine Police Department.
It took two years of planning, but in April the ACS members finished their communications van and have since been using it to fix the interoperability between agencies in the area, giving them a way to communicate with each other.

The van was built out of an old North Whatcom Fire and Rescue ambulance, which the ACS bought from them for a dollar. It fits four people, five if they grab a folding chair, and has three communication stations.

One station has all the public safety radios – city police, fire, sheriff’s office, Whatcom Transit Authority (WTA), a radio used to talk to emergency management groups and a radio to communicate with some Canadian agencies.

The second station is the amateur radio station, which has six different amateur radios, radios that are not to be used for money-making purposes, that can be patched into any radio frequency using a bridge.

“If another team comes in from across the state that needs to talk to the sheriff’s department they can’t because they operate on different frequencies, but we can use the bridge to connect those two agencies together so they can talk to one another on their own equipment,” Blaine Police Sgt. and ACS member Ryan King said.

The third station has a high frequency radio that is attached to a modem, which allows an outlook message to be sent from a computer through the high frequency radio to another computer or cell phone. This station also has the marine and aviation radios.

“The van turned out better than we thought it would,” Haslip said. “When we first started talking, it was primarily going to be a way to have cops from various agencies talk to each other, but now we have the ability for law enforcement, fire, emergency medical, aviation, marine and amateur radio to communicate to one another all in one self contained van.”

The electronics in the van run off a generator, but the van can be hooked into the grid if needed. Besides just radios and computers the inside is also fully equipped with a microwave, coffee pot and food and water, Haslip said.

Blaine’s ACS currently has 14 volunteer members as well as two full-time paid police officers, Haslip and King, who work with them on projects; and all members are required to be a certified amateur radio operator (ARO).

“Most inventions in radios were made by people in their homes, closets or backyards messing around with things and seeing what they would do,” Haslip said. “Over time they were recognized as ARO because they were not broadcasting for a fee, there was no advertising, they were not getting paid; it was strictly a hobby – now amateur radios have been designated part of the radio spectrum in every country.”

Amateur radios were included in the van because there are more mountain-top repeater sites for them compared to repeater sites for law enforcement radios, and because AROs know more about radios, can keep their radios running and have more equipment than law enforcement agencies, Haslip said.

“If we have the ‘big one,’ a tsunami or something, it is realistic that one of the only parts of the radio spectrum that will work and the only access we will have will be through amateur radio,” he said. “So we are lucky to have them.”

The idea for the van came from another organization in the county called radio amateur communication emergency service (RACES), which ACS manager Jim Elston was part of for a few years. The team works with the department of emergency management for the county and assists search and rescue teams.

Elston helped RACES build their first communications van, so he was able to take the ideas from RACES and apply them to the construction of the ACS van, Haslip said.

Over the last four months that the van has been operational it has been deployed multiple times.

In May for example, it provided communications for Ski to Sea, where it was deployed to the relay point for runners and bicyclists on Shuksan, and at the large road race from Birch Bay to Semiahmoo, where ACS members were stationed around the course and the van was set up at the fire station there.

“By placing ACS members out around the course it allowed the police department to not have to provide the service, so the police could concentrate on their normal work,” Haslip said.

ACS is funded through small anti-terrorism and disaster prevention grants from the federal government.

So far, the ACS has spent about $50,000 on the project, but that has only been on equipment; volunteers have done all the physical labor for the project, including stripping the old ambulance, Haslip said.

“Jim Elston alone has put in more than 2,000 hours building the van and recruiting and training members,” he said.

Some of the funding has also been used for training purposes.

Emergency management groups realized that in preparation for the 2010 Olympics they needed to organize specific training for people that are going to have to coordinate communication from a lot of different agencies, so they designed a course in communication, for which the first session was held in Seattle.

Haslip said two Blaine ACS members attended the training and he hopes to get two more through before the Olympics.

The next step for the ACS is to be added to Blaine’s comprehensive emergency management plan, so that in the event of an emergency they will know exactly what to do and who to work with. Haslip said that he has it on his work plan, and that the ACS will hopefully be part of the plan by 2009.

The ACS is also working to equip their radio repeater site with better communications, which will improve their ability to work with Canada, and they are helping the police department put together an area specifically set up for communications, a radio room, which the police department has never had.

“The first conversation Jim Elston and I had a couple years ago was just ‘Man, I can’t believe how much of a mess that just was. Washington State Patrol couldn’t talk to the sheriff’s office, couldn’t talk to customs, couldn’t talk to Blaine police,’” Haslip said. “But now we have the ACS van. I think we have been pretty successful in our outcome.”

ACS can be reached by calling 360/332-8311 or by visiting their website at www.ci.blaine.wa.us.