RACES BULLETIN 029 Date:18 July, 1988
The following are excerpts from an article, "The California
Earthquake", by Robert S. Hoover, KA6HZF. It is a thought
provoking paper that should be of interest to all hams and emergency
services managers. This controversial article was transmitted
in sections: Bulletin numbers 029A through 029H.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article should be a wake-up
call for the Hams who think that because they have a hand-held
radio with a "rubber duck" antenna that they qualify
as an emergency communicator. Although originally written in 1988, most of
the IDEAS are valid today. In spite of some of the controversial
aspects of this article, there is some valuable food for thought
here even if you don't live in California.]
- Rip Smith, KC3H
California is going to have a catastrophic earthquake within thirty
years. [See "erratta" below - ED] It's as inevitable as it is unavoidable, a natural geophysical
phenomenon we can neither prevent nor avoid.
There are earthquakes and there are Major earthquakes and there
are these horrendous killers called Great Earthquakes---seismic
events with an intensity of Richter 8 and up.
In 1983 an earthquake struck the little town of Coalinga and shook
down some older buildings. No one died but the media loved it,
calling it a Major quake and milking it for all they could. As
earthquakes go, Coalinga was strictly a non-player.
Unfortunately the town was almost on top of the epicenter.
In 1971 a Major earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley near
the town of Sylmar. It destroyed a newly constructed Veterans
Administration hospital, damaged another and ruined many commercial
buildings. Sixty-eight people died and 30,000 living below an
old earthen dam were evacuated. The Sylmar quake was one one-thousandth
as powerful as the predicted Great Earthquake.
The Great Earthquake due to strike California will be ten thousand
times as dangerous as the Coalinga non-event; a thousand times
as damaging as the San Fernando quake. And its epicenter will
be scant miles from the most densely populated region in Southern
The earthquake will stagger our nation's economy . . . the lives
of all Americans will be touched in some way by the California
Earthquake. Our only recourse is to prepare for a rapid, strategic
recovery. But we are simply unprepared.
The Great Earthquake will virtually isolate the region for up
to two weeks. Two weeks without water, power or gas. Two weeks
without the protection of firemen or police.
This will be the greatest natural disaster to ever strike our
nation and it will go down in the history of amateur radio as
our blackest hour because we are not prepared.
We aren't prepared for a Great Earthquake in Southern California
simply because an earthquake is not a blizzard. Nor is it a spring
flood. And it's not a tornado. People will die of exposure and
drowning, and there will be flooding and buildings will be ripped
to pieces---but it's going to happen all at once; all at the same
time and all in a matter of minutes.
Its damage can cover thousands of square miles. We can't expect
help from neighboring towns, they're having their own earthquake,
and hoping we can help them.
After a Great Earthquake it will take days for relief efforts
to take hold. We'll be on our own. And we aren't prepared for
A comprehensive plan must be designed around the decision makers,
not around the buildings housing them. The communication plan
must be flexible enough to accommodate a scattered command structure
and still function. This calls for design with a high degree of
modularity and fully portable, self-contained communications equipment.
To assume any form of communication---radio or telephone---will
survive a Great Earthquake is dangerous. Modern public safety
communication uses repeaters, just like we do. A critical analysis
reveals less than 5% of existing repeaters, amateur or commercial,
will withstand a Richter 8+ event.
Before any repeater in included in the planning for a catastrophic
event it should be hardened, completely self-contained and be
accessible. Few of Southern California's hundreds of repeaters
meet this criteria.
There are three main roles of communications in modern Disaster
Management: Disaster Assessment, Command-Control, and Health &
Welfare. Most hams are only familiar with the latter.
Knowledgeable disaster managers would like to use hams in the
Disaster Assessment role but find few who are young enough . .
. it is a physically demanding job that requires many skills in
addition to the ability to communicate. Given the time window
of the event, training expended on older hams will be largely
Command-Control is a job for a Super Ham. No communicator who
has Bashed his way to an Advanced ticket need apply. There's a
need for technical expertise, common sense and a cool head---qualities
growing rare in our shrinking ham community. it practical to train
a sixty year old ham for a task which may not occur for thirty
Ham radio has always borne the brunt of Health & Welfare messages
following a disaster but we aren't prepared for the volume of
traffic a Great Earthquake will produce. Our failure will contribute
to the virtual collapse of the telephone system across the nation.
After the quake we can expect between 900,000 and 3.2 million
pieces of outgoing H&W traffic. In the first few days (the
nation) will generate between nine and fifteen million pieces
of incoming H&W traffic. We just aren't prepared for it. Even
the low estimate of outgoing traffic will swamp our facilities.
We are too slow and too poorly organized. We're using the wrong
equipment and the wrong procedures.
We're too old for Damage Assessment, we haven't the skills for
Command-Control and we lack the capacity for Health & Welfare.
The people depending on us are in for a rude surprise.
When was the last time you read the regulations? You and the government
have entered into a contract; the government grants you various
privileges and you in turn agree to help out with emergency communications;
it's the only form of communications specifically mentioned.
There's no such thing as a free lunch; Amateur radio is not a
hobby, it's a 'Service' (check the regs). We're allowed to use
commercially valuable portions of the spectrum because we've made
a contract to provide a needed service during a disaster.
California has a higher ratio of hams than the national average.
But numbers alone don't tell the story. Southern California attracts
a lot of retirees and that includes hams. The average age of hams
in this region is nearly sixty, almost twice the median age of
Southern Californians. Disasters have a nasty habit of killing
the young and the old. Chances are, the typical Southern California
ham is more likely to be a casualty of the Great Quake than an
asset for its relief.
What can we do to prepare? We can make ourselves younger. I know
it sounds silly but follow me through. The typical ham recruits
his friends; people he knows. Over the years the average age of
American hams has climbed and so has the age of the new licensees.
It's a natural trend but a deadly one for the future of amateur
radio. The only way to reduce our average age is to bring in a
lot of younger people. A large number of younger hams in and of
itself will determine the future direction and usefulness of amateur
radio. For this reason alone many older hams, while giving lip
service to recruiting goals do little to actively support such
programs. As we get older things seem to speed by more quickly.
Constant change is the normal state for the young but often spells
trouble for the old. Many of our hams retired here with the hope
of spending their closing years in peaceful reflection, not high-tech
If we are to weather the storm of a Great Earthquake, we need
hundreds of high speed stations; fully portable stations capable
of being on the air within minutes after the quake. Each station
should be completely self-contained with a minimum endurance of
Low power (VHF/UHF) causes many hams to shake their heads.
Under traditional schemes they had high power and handhelds and
little in between. Modern disaster communications doesn't need
high power, it needs high capacity networks; the ability to pump
large volumes of data from many points to a few central points.
VHF-FM with data rates of 300 to 1200 bits per second is ideal
for this task. Without a widely distributed, high capacity network
the information tap is shut off and decisions made by default
instead of design.
One final chore for ham radio. Modern Disaster Management requires
the capture, storage, manipulation, communication and display
of vast quantities of data. Many relief functions are highly automated
and must be spoken to in the proper format and syntax to make
A large part of disaster preparedness involves learning the necessary
language and procedures to communicate effectively with diverse
agencies. This complex structure has evolved over many years but
hams are largely ignorant of it. We, the "Communicators of
Last Resort", have failed to keep up to date in the one type
of communications we've been specifically asked to perform.
In the modern world the stakes of disaster management are very
high. If Southern California is not swiftly returned to full productive
capacity, the economy and possibly even the defense of our nation
will be at risk.
The final analysis reveals this horrendous responsibility rests
squarely on the shoulders of one man, one key ham. You.
Are you a part of the problem or a factor in its solution?
Do you know your role in the local disaster plan? Is it a good
plan? Or are you one of those hams who casually ducks his responsibilities
by saying you'll be there if you're needed.
No 'ifs' about it, old man---you're needed. But you're needed
now, before the event. Hams who wander in waving their ticket
are about as welcome as a finger in the eye. It doesn't matter
is you swat out CW at thirty words a minute, an unlicensed kid
with a VIC-20 can handle 50 words per second and pick his nose
at the same time.
If you don't know the language, if you don't know the organization,
you just don't know enough to be useful.
If you're under fifty, you're going to see the big quake.
Your task is to prepare yourself and your family; if you and your
equipment don't survive you can't help anyone else. Learn your
role in the plan and get your station ready.
If you're over fifty, your task is more demanding. You probably
won't live to see the Great Earthquake but your legacy could mean
the survival of amateur radio. Your task, if you are willing to
accept it, is to see your skills and the essence of your experience
passed safely into younger hands.
Summing up: Amateur Radio is facing the most critical test in
its history, a trial imposed by a cataclysmic natural event. Failure
may be the deathblow for ham radio and for thousands of innocent
It's ironic. Hams are always helping someone else; for almost
75 years we've given of ourselves at home and abroad, during desperate
wars and fragile periods of peace. If help was needed, we were
there. Disasters have a way of making brothers of us all, wiping
away questions of politics, race and nationality. But if we are
unprepared for the Great Earthquake, history will record that
the only group we ever failed to help was ourselves.
---Robert S. Hoover, KA6HZF
The preceding are excepts of a paper titled "The California
Earthquake" by Robert S. Hoover, Amateur Radio licensee KA6HZF.
A copy of the article in its entirety is available by sending
a SASE to:
Stanly E. Harter, KH6GBX
Governor's Office of Emergency Services
2800 Meadowview Road
Sacramento, CA 95832
BULLETIN 029 ERRATA Date: Sep. 12, 1988
To date, the author's references to age was the most stimulating
and controversial. Guest articles do not necessarily reflect the
position or practices of this office. Our intent in running this
series was to stimulate discussion, motivate managers and volunteers,
and generate proactive and remedial actions.
The following changes are submitted by the author and others to
the State RACES BULLETIN series 029A-029H titled "The California
Earthquake" by Robert S. Hoover, KA6HZF. We thank the author
and others who make contributions to and share their interest
in the weekly California State RACES BULLETINS.
Archives of California RACES Bulletins are available via anonymous
ftp at ftp.ucsd.edu/hamradio/races
The Home Page for the State of California Governor's Office of Emergency Services
other information about emergency response in California and elsewhere.