By Kati Cowan, American Red Cross volunteer
Disasters impact thousands of Americans every year. A wildfire consumes a community, a hurricane ravages a region, heavy rains flood countless homes, or an earthquake destroys infrastructure. When disaster strikes, the American Red Cross is there to offer comfort, food and shelter to all affected.
Critical to the Red Cross mission is the rapid establishment of effective communications. This is the job of Disaster Services Technology (DST). During large disasters, cell phone service may be disabled or degraded, and it may not be the most efficient way of communicating when there is a need to connect to a large team. Local governments depend upon their established radio communication systems, but even these systems can become overwhelmed in a large-scale emergency. The solution is a trained group of Amateur Radio volunteers.
A strong partnership between Amateur Radio and the Red Cross has been formed in the Southern California Region. Enter the PAPA system, with a motto of “No call goes unanswered!" The PAPA System is a member-supported wide-area Amateur Radio network of interconnected repeaters, providing extensive coverage of the Southern California Region and beyond. PAPA provides reliable communications from the border with Mexico to north of Santa Barbara, and east to the Arizona border. The PAPA System blends internet and radio technologies to form a wide-area two-way radio network.
PAPA began in 1983 as a way of using Amateur Radio to connect to the telephone system. Today, under the leadership of Cecil Casillas, the PAPA System has expanded to over 500 Amateur Radio operators. According to Casillas, “We go with the best equipment we can buy. We carefully design our radio network to fit with the funding we have and provide the best possible service to our members.” The PAPA System is a 501(c)(3) organization, and operates for the benefit of the Amateur Radio community.
Under the cooperative agreement with the Red Cross, during an emergency PAPA jumps into action, advising members to stay clear of specific frequencies to give the Red Cross full priority. Michael Rickey, a software developer and project manager, is the Operations Team Lead for PAPA. Working closely with the Red Cross, he designed a plan that would segment specific PAPA repeaters to cover the geographical location of a disaster.
“During an activation, we have internal procedures in place so we can notify PAPA members that we have reconfigured the system with certain repeaters being dedicated to Red Cross operations,” Rickey said. “Depending on the location of the disaster, we may not pull the entire group of repeaters off. If, for instance, something is happening by the Salton Sea, we will pull the coastal repeaters.”
It doesn’t take long to realize the value of this partnership. PAPA already has a radio network in place that can provide reliable emergency communications if a massive disaster were to strike the Southern California Region. Nearly four million people could be impacted by a loss of communications. The future may include expanded use of the PAPA System by the Red Cross to counties as far north as Ventura. The Red Cross holds weekly radio training operations that they hope to move to the PAPA System to provide better coverage throughout the region.
The Red Cross has many resources to resolve challenges they may encounter and the PAPA System represents a valuable communications tool. As a trusted partner, the Red Cross strives to use the fewest PAPA repeater resources necessary and return them to member use as quickly as possible.
In the United States, over 300,000 volunteers contribute their time and talents to the American Red Cross, helping respond to over 60,000 disasters, including home fires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes, hazardous materials spills, transportation accidents, explosions and other emergencies. Like the Red Cross, Amateur Radio is based on volunteerism with a core value of public service.
“The purpose of the Amateur Radio service is to provide a group of trained communicators to utilize in emergency situations,” said Rickey. PAPA encourages their members to volunteer for charity events and emergency communications duties. PAPA members conduct school programs to get young people interested and involved in the Amateur Radio hobby. PAPA members are eager to support organizations like the Red Cross.
At a recent Red Cross community outreach event, Bob Birch, the Team Lead for DST, demonstrated Amateur Radio communications to a group of young people. “I operated on a PAPA repeater for the children who stopped at our booth. Suddenly we could hear somebody from South America talking to someone in Ireland and their jaws dropped down to the table,” shared Birch. “My cell phone can’t do that,” the children said. “Exactly! This is the fun of Amateur Radio. You can make friends around the world, something you cannot do on your cell phone,” Birch said enthusiastically.
The Red Cross and PAPA are strong community partners. If you are interested in Amateur Radio, please visit the PAPA website at papasys.com. The local Red Cross DST team is always looking for volunteers as well. Visit redcross.org/volunteer to join the team.