Real emergency communication: Pleasant Hill-area hams to show off what works when Internet, phones aren't working
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed, $6-billion-plus dollars of damage destroyed 147 businesses and 963 homes and Mt. Diablo trembled like jello, Lew Jenkins could have emailed your mother, offering reassurance.
More remarkably, when the Tiananmen Square incident shocked the world earlier that same year -- and the Chinese government shut down standard lines of communication -- Jenkins was corresponding with people in China from his backyard.
By now you may have guessed: Jenkins is a ham. In fact, it would be fair to say he's an Amateur "Ham" Radio giant. And like a giant, his toys are oversized. Towering over the grandkids' swing set and his nearby central command home studio, 85 feet of aluminum and 1,000 watts of monster power represent a passion the 65-year-old former e-commerce entrepreneur has felt "since time immemorial."
Starting at dawn Saturday and continuing through noon Sunday at Pleasant Hill's Dinosaur Hill Park, he and his fellow East Bay hams will flaunt their emergency response capabilities in hopes of spawning the next generation of hams. It's a fun event and a national competition: 30,000 hams across the country compete in a 24-hour race to send messages to as many recipients as possible without the use of phone systems, Internet or energy infrastructures.
"I'm trying to interest young people in the capabilities," Jenkins says. "Used to be, we had hams all over the world, but since 2001, when the government took over, it's centralized, versus the distributive old school of my day."
On the annual "Field Day" set up by local ham groups and like-minded individuals, Jenkins' three-man team will set up a 200-watt, high-frequency station, powered by generators, and a solar-powered satellite station for a 20-watt transmitter. The equipment allowing him to communicate with people anywhere in the world fits into a 66-quart plastic tub. The antennae towers are composed of a half-dozen modular units weighing no more than a golf club. In an emergency, which is exactly the circumstance they will be simulating, Jenkins can be up and running in less than two hours.
In 1989, Jenkins owned Premenos Technology Corporation, a Concord-based, e-commerce software company. He recalls describing the Internet's ubiquitous network capabilities in presentations to corporations.
"When the computer industry started, everyone in it was a ham," he says. "Ham radio was the masonry of Silicon Valley. It's all electronics: there was a huge overlap."
Eventually, he claims, large phone companies and "Internet guys" proposed formal models for the burgeoning systems to "increasingly interventionist" governmental agencies. Internet "node hubs" (now commonly known as ISP servers), they argued, would survive a nuclear explosion and route messages in a disaster. But centralization's gains -- thousands of nodes in the Internet model; less, but more expensive nodes in the phone company monopoly -- were all energy and systems operation dependent.
"Ham radio works, no matter how bad it is," Jenkins says. "After Prieta, I was on the air in 20 minutes and power was out everywhere for three days."
Using his "N6VV" moniker ("N" means U.S., "6" is California, "V" he chose for it's three-dots-one-dash Morse Code equivalent) and "Packet Radio,' the digital form of audio ham radio sent electronically, Jenkins handled 13,000 messages in 72 hours.
Two years later, when the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm broke out, Jenkins was called to a Red Cross command center in Oakland.
"I was there for three days. I had my Ford van parked out back so we could crash for naps," he remembers.
In addition to emailing transmissions, Jenkins and his slimmer-than-a-rescue-vehicle van were enlisted to drive supplies to the firefighters. Trees and homes were collapsing into the streets, he says, and the fire's red hue, drawing a low cloud bank, reflected pink in the cheeks of everyone he encountered.
"It was bizarre," he says. Ironically, the memories don't haunt him as much as does the future.
"Ham radio has been dumbed down," he complains. "We took tests to know Mores Code, we knew electronics. Now, the Internet makes people ask, "Why learn, why go on the radio?"--and the enforced, central control of government killed it. They don't want people to know they're putting money into (other) services, but in a disaster, they'll have to use ham radio."
To find hope, Jenkins looks to China, where he says stations are proliferating. And on Dinosaur Hill, he'll be offering training, licensing guidance, and reaching out worldwide for next-gen hams.