Thursday, February 14, 2008

Grant Opens Lines Of Communications

Radio broadcasts seen as efficient way to keep citizens informed during emergencies

By Nao Braverman
In the event of a natural disaster sometimes the most primitive forms of technology are the most reliable.
As antiquated lanterns or candlesticks are put to use during a blackout, a battery-powered AM radio will transmit critical information to Ojai residents during emergencies, even when telephone lines are down and electricity is out.
At the Feb. 5 City Council meeting, the city accepted a $50,000 grant from the Ventura County Office of Emergency Services to purchase and implement an Emergency Advisory Radio System to serve the Ojai Valley.
Surrounded by mountains, with thick vegetation, seasonally dry climate and occasional rainstorms, the Ojai Valley faces a number of challenges in responding to natural disasters and is highly susceptible to them. Living with the dangers of alternating floods, landslides and wildfires, and less likely incidents such as earthquakes and dam failure, Ojai residents have only two highways that connect them to the rest of the county, both which traverse windy roads over mountainous terrain.
The subject of disaster preparedness was considered high priority by attendants of the most recent valley-wide meeting.
Efficient communication between public safety and community members is key during natural disasters, said Police Capt. Bruce Norris. Though there are currently a variety of ways that people get information during such events. An AM radio station could serve as the official and immediate source for direction and announcements to the public. With battery-powered, solar-powered and old-fashioned wind-up radios available, the radio broadcast could also continue to function when a power outage eliminates other sources of information.,
Carole McCartney, the former coordinator for local public access television, said that she received a number of calls at the station during the wildfires last year.
“People wanted more information and they didn’t know where to call so they called me,” she said.
Emergency Advisory Radio System, the low-powered broadcast system that the city is about to implement, will transmit information to local AM radios throughout the valley. It is equipped with a four-day battery backup and a wireless audio link so it can broadcast when power and telephone lines are not functioning. The antenna and receiver, which are to be positioned in Oak View at a community water tank belonging to the Ventura County Community Water District, can broadcast over a radius of three to five miles or 25 to 75 square miles, depending on the terrain, said Norris.
A small antenna, computer interface and broadcast equipment will be installed at the Ojai Police Department.
In addition to disaster information, such as shelter locations, flood and fire evacuation, the system may also announce road closures and conditions, weather updates, local events, crime prevention tips, disaster preparedness tips, and other advisories by Ojai Valley agencies when no alerts are being broadcast.
The Federal Communications Commission regulates the station’s information and does not allow any broadcasts for commercial purposes, said Norris.
Other nearby areas using E.A.R.S. are Simi Valley, Fillmore and San Marcos Pass, along with hundreds of cities, airports and government agencies across the country.
The $50,000 allotted to the city project from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department is part of a $965,762 grant from the State Homeland Security Program awarded to the county for disaster preparedness.
The funds covered the purchase of hazardous materials equipment, Community Emergency Response Team training, National Incident Management System training, development of an animal disaster plan, equipment and supplies for public health services, and continuity of government planning for the county, in addition to Ojai’s E.A.R.S.
Norris said the system is expected to be up and running in about two to three months.
In other council news, the city awarded a certificate of appreciation to Thad Hyland, who directed the Ojai Valley Inn, the city’s highest taxpayer, and transformed it from an unprofitable golf course to a Five Diamond-rated, high-quality inn.
Council members also discussed the staff’s priority list of planning projects presented to the Planning Commission.
Councilwoman Rae Hanstad and Mayor Sue Horgan said they thought the proposed neighborhood-specific plan could be divisive, and should not be prioritized. All council members agreed that the tree plan should be placed lower on the list of priorities and that re-evaluating the city’s village mixed use designation should be considered high priority.
The meeting was adjourned in the memory of council members killed at a city council meeting in Kirkwood, Mo., last week.

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