Bothell depends on extensive network of ‘ham radio’ operators

The Bothell Fire Department counts about 17 different "zones" within the city.

The Bothell Fire Department counts about 17 different “zones” within the city.

Almost every zone has a neighbor who’s a licensed amateur radio or “ham radio” operator. Those neighbors are trained to communicate with rescue crews after a disaster.

The system was built by a volunteer, William Harding, a former U.S. Air Force captain who also designs training programs for a Seattle technology company.

Harding, 62, lives in unincorporated Snohomish County near Woodinville. He got involved because, he said, “It’s a sense of community and being able to make a difference in the community that I live in and that I care about. Lots of people do lots of community service in lots of ways. I guess this is my way.”

Harding picked up ham radio in about 2005, he said. He’d always been interested.

“I’m a technology geek type guy,” he said. “Amateur radio holds a lot of promise that way.”

Soon afterward, he pitched the idea of an emergency community radio system for Bothell, fire department spokeswoman Kirsten Clemens said.

Now, Bothell firefighters are trained on the system, and so are a group of trusted neighbors. The program was funded by an emergency preparedness grant, Clemens said.

“We tried to identify ham radio operators in as many of those disaster zones as possible,” she said. “The idea is we’re basically creating a team that is able to be our eyes and ears in the event we do have a disaster.”

Bothell, which straddles two counties, was struggling to fit into county-based emergency preparedness plans, Harding said. He also comes from a teaching background, particularly science. He offered his help to Clemens.

“She said, ‘OK, let’s put a plan together,’ and I did, and they liked it, and we’ve been going forward with it ever since,” he said.

The ham radio system is designed to work even when other communication systems have failed, he said.

“We plan and we practice for a time that we hope never happens but on the other hand, we’re there to serve when it does,” he said.

Harding donated countless hours, Clemens said.

“His dedication and his volunteer hours have been very, very impressive and so appreciated,” she said. “He’s definitely made Bothell a safer place for the citizens, and if the big one ever does hit here, we’re going to be in a way better position as far as communication goes.”

The Bothell Fire Department offers free emergency preparedness training and ham radio training. For more information, call 425-489-3364.

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