When a disaster strikes, amateur radio operators in the affected area are quick to mobilize. The result is invaluable communications services at a time when they are most needed. In some parts of the world, where the first-responder infrastructure isn’t as robust as it is in the U.S., the hams step into that role, as seen in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

Within the U.S., the role of hams usually is to provide supportive services, as they did in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy last October, when hams helped the American Red Cross set up communications in numerous ad-hoc shelters established across the region, where commercial communications were rendered inoperable in many places.

It is not unusual for an informal connection to exist between public-safety agencies and the local amateur-radio community; such a connection helps the mobilization effort. But, in one southern California city, a formal relationship was established, with the result being the creation of the Peninsula Volunteer Alert Network, or PVAN.

Rancho Palos Verde is city of 42,000 inhabitants, located on the Pacific Ocean just a few miles due west of Long Beach. It doesn’t have much crime, but it is prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and wildfires. Despite this, it never really occurred to anybody to formally leverage ham radio until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It dawned on us that there are a lot of big targets in our area. There are refineries in San Pedro [an adjacent city], and lot of shipping goes through there,” said PVAN Chairman Denzel Dyer. “We needed to prepare for a big event.”

That realization led to a big idea: establish a way that the city’s numerous neighborhood-watch groups could communicate with each other during emergencies, with hams at the center of the strategy. The 150-member strong Palos Verde Amateur Radio Club was the logical place to start. The goal was to ensure that every neighborhood-watch organization—each of which typically covers about 6 square blocks—had a ham in their midst. The PVAN, which started with 4-5 hams in November 2002, now has 86 members, all of them hams, according to Dyer. New PVAN members go through a training regimen that is coordinated by the city and participate in at least one mock emergency drill each year.

The radio club not only convinced local sheriffs and fire officials that this effort a good idea, but they also officials that amateur radio was the best option, given the topology of the surrounding area, which consists of numerous peaks and valleys.

“They asked about FRS (family radio service) and CB (citizens-band radio), but amateur is the most reliable communications you can get,” said Alan Soderberg, a PVAN board member.

Despite the fact that amateur-radio technology is highly reliable, the topology still creates some challenges, because there are plenty of dead spots. However, Harris recently came to the rescue by donating a UHF digital mobile repeater.

“One of our employees knew a PVAN member, and one thing led to another,” said Steve Howard, a Harris regional sales manager.

Though grateful for the repeater, Dyer noted that it’s not yet operational. “Now we need a duplexer,” he deadpanned.