By Gary Peterson
Contra Costa Times
OAKLAND -- Bob Firehock has been preparing for life without cellphones and the Internet even before there were cellphones and the Internet.
An Oakland resident, Firehock saw firsthand how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland hills fire created a communications vacuum at a time when communication was needed most. The experiences inspired in him an interest in amateur (ham) radio, the one form of outreach that typically holds up when others break down in a disaster.
"I thought it would be a useful skill to have," said Firehock, event coordinator for his radio club's participation in Saturday's Amateur Radio Field Day, a national exercise in which amateur radio clubs test their emergency response capabilities.
"A line we like to use is, 'When all those cellphone towers go down, you can come to me, and I can talk to your cousin in Peoria.'"
Firehock's club, the Oakland Radio Communication Association, staged its drill, a 24-hour event that began at 11 a.m. Saturday, at the secluded Sequoia Arena in Joaquin Miller Park. There, ORCA members pitched tents, raised antennae, deployed generators and solar panels, and began trying to contact as many other clubs as possible.
"They encourage us to get off the grid," Firehock said of the American Radio Relay League, which sponsors Field Day, "and to use emergency power. For example, they create a scoring system and give extra points if you make a certain number of contacts using solar power. It's to show how you can go out in the field and set up a full radio station."
David Otey, ORCA's past president, current treasurer and Firehock's neighbor when he caught the amateur radio bug, made use of the century-old technology in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta quake.
"Several of us went to the Red Cross because I had, through a grant to the Red Cross, installed a modern amateur radio communications system there," Otey said. "Amateurs came from all parts of the community to do communications for the purpose of damage assessment."
Otey also placed radios in every Kaiser hospital in the Bay Area, which were utilized during the Oakland hills fire.
"We communicated with other Kaiser hospitals amateur radio," he said. "'Are you on generator power? Do you have the capability of receiving patients?'"
Firehock said that ORCA works closely with the city of Oakland and that club members could be activated as public disaster service workers should the city's communications go down or its resources become stretched thin.
ORCA also supports the annual Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergency, or CORE, drill. In addition, the club has installed radios in all Oakland fire stations.
At last year's Field Day, ORCA contacted other clubs throughout the United States and Canada. As of 1 p.m. Saturday, Firehock had made five contacts on his solar-powered radio alone.
"I could do it with a car battery or a solar panel on my roof," he said. "That's all I need. Maybe a cup of coffee. We're totally self-contained."