Amateur Radio Operators Help Communications During Emergencies

(Jeff Heyman, Photographer)
In addition to providing public service radio coverage for local events, the Lamorinda Amateur Radio Interest Group, known as LARIG, participates in the American Radio Relay League’s annual “Field Day.” Matthew Vurek makes a Field Day contact while working the group’s station at last year’s event.

    Once upon a time, not so long ago, in 1988, and not so far away, in Orinda, a troop of Girl Scouts needed a project for their Gold Award. One of the dads was a licensed ham radio operator and a member of the Orinda Amateur Radio Team, or OART. The seven scouts decided to learn Morse code and get their licenses.
    “This was the beginning of the Miramonte High School Radio Club,” said Diana Wilde, who served as their troop leader.
    Since 1988, the OART has grown into today’s LARIG, the Lamorinda Area Radio Interest Group.
    The Federal Communications Commission, FCC, granted a license to LARIG in 2007 with call sign K6ORI and Keith Riley has been the Trustee since. LARIG was incorporated as a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation in 2012.
    LARIG has evolved to serve two purposes. First, to be a hub for amateur radio operators, who help with training, licensing and support new members. Riley has been an Elmer, a mentor, to newly licensed operators and has helped many learn the Morse code – which is no longer required to get a license.
    “Our goal is to bring together folks who have interest in radio operation and are willing to help the community, when needed,” he said at a weekly Tuesday morning coffee meet, over which he unofficially presides.
    The second purpose is to provide support for emergency operations, especially for major disasters and big events like the Orinda 4th of July parade and the NORCAL Kids Triathlon.
    When hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in Aug. 2005, cell phones died and Ham radios became the primary source of emergency communication traffic. During the Loma Prieta earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989, many emergency organizations discovered they were unable to communicate with each other.
    “When all else fails, we rely on the amateur radio operators to provide communications when it really matters,” said Todd Gritzer, the recent president of LARIG.
    All emergency organizations now have Amateur radios, including the City of Orinda, MOFD, Moraga and Lafayette Police departments, as well as educational institutions including Saint Mary’s College and all Lamorinda schools.
    The Miramonte High School Ham Radio Club, established by the Girl Scouts in 1990, continues to function.
    “We have helped two members get their licenses this year and have repaired the school’s base station,” said Club President, Ryan Kaelle.
    Over the years, the term “ham radio” has segued to “amateur radio,” recognizing the purely personal aim of the individuals and “without pecuniary interest.”
    “They are anything but amateurs,” said MOFD’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Dennis Rein. “They bring an impressive and interesting set of technical knowledge that is essential for communication during an emergency.”
    FCC uses three levels of licenses for amateur radio: technician, general and extra; each requires passing an exam. However, anyone can get a General Mobile Radio Service, or GMRS license from the FCC without an examination. Basic hand-held radios are inexpensive and highly recommended for staying in contact with family members during an emergency.
    LARIG currently maintains and operates three K6ORI voice repeaters (UHF – Ultra High Frequency) and three GMRS repeaters, one of each in Orinda, Moraga and Lafayette. The repeaters are needed to overcome the hilly terrain and extend the range of the radios. LARIG also programs the radios MOFD’s Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, volunteers use. This team has two portable repeaters to deploy during emergencies.
    “My wife Sandi and I were introduced to the GMRS radios when we went through CERT training. We got hooked and took our exams to get amateur radio licenses,” said Gritzer.
    Annually, LARIG members conduct a Field Day to ensure all equipment is in working condition and they clean the space around the East Bay Hills repeater regularly. The Lafayette repeater was installed in a resident’s house on a hill. Recently, when the resident decided to move, his neighbor offered his house for the repeater. The volunteers worked through a weekend to move the equipment and antenna to the new location.
    Local amateur operators’ backgrounds include businessmen, pilots, doctors, engineers, homemakers, photographers, artists and firefighters. Their common bond is using a radio and helping the community.
    LARIG is always looking for new people to learn and join the community. Visit for more information.
    “I started coming for the technical stuff, but now I come for the enjoyable company,” said Carol Alvord, LARIG’s newest member.

S.K. Gupta can be reached at


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