The El Dorado County Amateur Radio Club (EDCARC), has established a Neighborhood Radio Watch (NRW) for your community. Its purpose is to relay important local information so that individuals can make appropriate decisions for themselves.
The Neighborhood Radio Watch does not take the place of dialing 911 nor does it originate evacuation orders or emergency services. The radio net comes into play for less formal communications and can help when the usual communication systems fail. The radio net repeats emergency warnings after they have been verified and it provides a means for neighbors to share information with other neighbors in a manner that is far more efficient than other means.
The Neighborhood Radio Watch is organized and coordinated by the EDCARC and while many Fire Safe Councils share information about this important alternate means of communication, those councils are not direct sponsors and are not responsible for the program.
The radio net uses hand-held, high quality radios. These were originally very expensive radios used by fire, police, college campuses, etc. Individual volunteer members of the EDCARC make them available at low cost by purchasing them in large numbers, used, and then refurbishing, testing, programming and selling them at cost for use in the Neighborhood Radio Watch network. They are sturdy and reliable.
The radios currently use the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) frequencies but EDCARC plans to move the program over to more secure Business Band frequencies in the future. You will be able to continue using your GMRS license and EDCARC will manage the Business Band licensing without cost to you.
GMRS is an ultra high frequency (UHF) radio band unrelated to Ham radio. Only EDCARC recommended radios for use in the current GMRS band are capable of operating on the future Business Band frequencies. It should be noted that most radios sold for use in the GMRS band will not be legal in the Business Band so do not purchase a radio without checking with EDCARC members in advance.
These radios contain an additional feature that is not commonly available in newer radios -- a paging channel that is labeled the ALERT channel. The ALERT channel is triggered by the Net Controller (a trained volunteer assigned to your Neighborhood Radio Watch) once an event in the neighborhood has been identified, responded to by local officials and verified. The ALERT channel can be left on all night without disturbing us because it does not pick up any talk channels. When triggered, however, it will produce a very loud tone that WILL continue until you wake up and switch to the primary repeater channel for your neighborhood that will inform you of the VERIFIED event information.
Depending on the situation, the paging channel can perform a very important service to the community. But it bears repeating that the Neighborhood Radio Watch does NOT take the place of calling 911, does NOT originate evacuation orders, and does NOT manage any rescue services.
During the day, you should monitor another special channel: your primary repeater channel for your neighborhood, which you will learn more about in the next paragraph.
The radios in the radio watch are programmed to send a special “tone” that unlocks a repeater station located on a high ridge or tower in your area. Unless a radio is programmed with that specific tone, it cannot operate on the radio net. Communication is available only to those authorized to use the radio net.
The special channel you will monitor most often, as mentioned above, is your primary repeater channel -- its name appears first in the list of channels on your radio and its name is spelled out, like this: Oak Hill, Placervile, Cosumnes River, Lotus/Coloma or Pollock Pines . It is called a DUPLEX channel because it uses one frequency to transmit, another frequency to receive. It also uses a special tone to unlock the repeater station. When you speak with the Net Controller on your primary channel, all the neighbors who are monitoring that channel with radios programmed to use the repeater station will hear what you say and be able to respond. All conversation on your primary channel is directed by the Net Controller. Your primary channel is only to be used in specific situations and is not to be used for sharing general information with neighbors unless you are participating in the weekly radio net practice sessions (more about that later in this article.)
For talking with family and friends your radio will also be programmed with some SIMPLEX channels that do not use the repeater station. In general, it is good practice to use the simplex channels for short-range, informal conversations so that the repeater station does not become overtaxed.
You will have all, or nearly all, the repeater stations programmed on your radio. That means, you will be able to listen in as other NRWs nearby deal with emergency situations such as a wildfire. In the recent Caldor Fire event, many of us remained "glued" to our radios as we witnessed skillful net controllers correcting misinformation, verifying correct information, helping to channel evacuation traffic and receiving visual reports about the fire from neighbors. You will also be able to transmit to all the repeater stations but, like your primary repeater channel, those other repeaters should never be used for small talk -- they are all emergency traffic stations.
Reaching the Repeater
Your repeater station is located on a high ridge or tower in your neighborhood. Where a home is heavily shadowed by nearby ridges or unusually dense forest, a hand held radio may require something more to get its signal to the repeater station. EDCARC personnel can suggest a range of solutions to increase the transmission power of individual radios: a larger whip antenna, a car-top antenna, a roof-mounted antenna or even setting up a more powerful base station at your home. But in most cases, the hand-held radio with its small antenna will be all that is needed. So long as the signal from your radio can reach the repeater station, it will be able to communicate with others through the more powerful repeater station. In other words, you relatively small hand held radio becomes a powerful station located at the highest point in your area -- wow!
EDCARC is in the process of establishing many repeater stations along the western slope of the Sierra. These stations can be used by local communities to share information and communicate when there is an important event such as a wildfire. There are several Neighborhood Radio Watch programs, each serving many communities. They are usually named for the community at their center, such as Lotus/Coloma, Cosumnes River, Oak Hill, Placerville and Pollock Pines.
HOW TO JOIN
To become part of your local Neighborhood Radio Watch (NRW) you will need the following things:
1. A GMRS radio license. It costs $70, is good for 10 years, it covers you and all members of your household. There is no test for this license. You can apply for the license on line and will get it in about 2 days. Use the following link to download an application packet which contains a step-by-step tutorial for getting a GMRS license:
NRW Application Form "How to Join"
2. A Radio. There are small, inexpensive non-commercial radios available that are not recommended by EDCARC. The non-commercial radios are inexpensive but often do not use the right frequencies, do not broadcast with enough power, cannot be programmed, cannot link to the repeater station, have construction-quality problems or will not be legal to operate on future Business Band frequencies.
To meet the need for high-quality, low-cost radios, volunteers purchase used, high-quality radios in large numbers, refurbish, test, program and resell them to neighbors at cost. The price placed on the radios is enough to return the investment in parts made by the volunteers.
It is not practical to provide any guarantee with the radios, batteries, chargers or power supplies other than they have been tested and are performing to specifications at the time they are supplied to you. There will be scratches on these radios because they have been used, but purchasers are often surprised by their good condition.
An EDCARC volunteer will program the radio, without charge, so that it works with your local repeater station, the ALERT channel, some of the nearby NRW stations and has other channels that you, your family, and your neighbors can use. Our present batch of GMRS radios sell for $65 apiece, including a new battery and charger. The more powerful base stations sell from $180-$230.
New radios are available at significantly higher costs. EDCARC personnel can recommend new models to those interested.
USING THE NEIGHBORHOOD RADIO WATCH
It is important that you participate in your local Radio Safety Net once a week on the primary channel of your radio. The person who supplies you with the radio (a volunteer radio programmer) can tell you the day and time of your local radio net and answer other questions.
NOTE: Each weekly radio net begins with a test of the ALERT channel. You should tune into that channel 5 minutes before it is time for the weekly radio net to begin to test the ALERT on your radio. You will hear a warbling tone that triggers a response from your radio -- 3 loud tones repeating over and over that signify your ALERT channel is working correctly, then switch back to your primary repeater channel.
You will hear the Net Controller call each of the current members with their Call Sign. After the Controller has spoken with each current member, he/she will ask if there are any new members who have not been called. At that point you can hold down the push-to-talk button ( PTT ) and hold it down to speak. Give your call sign, followed by your first name and the street you live on, like this: "WRFS-722, this is Steve on Metate Trail." and from there, follow the direction of the Net Controller. When finished talking with the Controller, repeat your call sign followed by "back to the net." Remember to hold the transmit button down while you are speaking and to let go of the button to listen. The Net Controller will record your call number and use it next week to call on you, in turn, along with the rest of the current members. Do not call in if you do not have your call sign yet.