Nonprofits and hams team up for disaster
Roads are closed and cell phone towers are down. Disaster has hit West Marin, who will react?
Seven Marin nonprofits are developing an independent communication system to help serve vulnerable communities when normal communication channels are not available. This is a one-year pilot program, pairing resource centers with amateur radio operators to relay messages about who needs food, water, clothing, blankets, transportation or water. information, much like the National Guard. West Marin Community Services and the San Geronimo Valley Community Center are involved and, if the program is successful, it will expand to places like Tomales, Bolinas and Stinson Beach.
“During a disaster, people realized that the lack of coordination and communication resulted in a very ineffective disaster response,” said Adriana Rabkin, director of Marin Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD. “You have people block after block providing the same thing, and you lack food, water or shelter. You have people in vulnerable situations, and they are not getting help … But we can work together.
The program aims to match people with their expertise. First responders will remain responsible for the protection of life and property, while community organizations will endeavor to interact with the public and respond to less immediate needs. Amateur radio operators are already registered to be called in an emergency, and they will be trained to meet with a nonprofit employee to pass messages to and from the Marin emergency operations center.
VOAD partners with the civilian amateur radio emergency service and the Marin amateur radio company to coordinate volunteers, organize exercises and provide training for different scenarios. Attendees are ready to put the communications system into practice this fall, whether it’s a fire, prolonged power outage, or whatever.
Each nonprofit has designated a primary and secondary liaison, and the executive director would be the third in line. The relays were selected on the basis of their proximity to the resource center and their knowledge of people at risk.
Poko Giacomini leads the disaster preparedness program at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. The radio communication program is only one of many efforts it undertakes. In partnership with the Marin County Fire Department and the San Geronimo Valley Emergency Preparedness Group, she is creating a vulnerable people map and buddy system. Elderly people without transportation are her top priority.
“We’re so isolated here that we automatically go into survival mode because who knows how long it will take the county or the food bank to reach us, depending on the disaster,” she said.
Being prepared on an individual level is essential, so she said she asks people to sign up for emergency alerts and pack a travel bag whenever she can.
The committee meets every Friday and plans monthly exercises. The costs are minimal; radio operators maintain their own equipment and liaison officers volunteer their time. Ms Rabkin said the group would present to the supervisory board by the end of the year to gain membership, and then roll out the program to more organizations in early 2022.
VOAD is a national movement that has had a local chapter in Marin since 1989. But as disasters recede, so do VOADs, Ms. Rabkin said. Marin VOAD, which has a seat at the Emergency Operations Center, restarted after the North Bay fires in 2017, when evacuees showed up at the community center and Lawson’s Landing.
Ms. Rabkin selected nonprofit organizations for the pilot program with which she has an existing relationship because she knows their capabilities. Community Services from North Marin, Community Action Marin, Homeward Bound of Marin, the Canal Alliance, and the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank round out the over the hill list. Once the issues are resolved, the program can expand to any location an amateur radio operator is willing to go.
“We were lucky because we had all the good players involved,” Ms. Rabkin said. “It was a mutual understanding that the left hand had to speak to the right hand, and it’s the public and private sectors.”