Emergency Advisory Radio
informs a California wildland community, 24/7.
San Marcos Pass
|Photo courtesy of
Wildland Residents Association
Helicopter Operations Training
|The National Fire
Protection Association says 88% of all fire departments
are either whole or partially volunteer. The San Marcos
Pass group here trains to
assist with both aerial and
are on California's shortlist of worst natural disasters. Six
hundred homeowners near San Marcos Pass can attest to that.
They've been battling the threat for many years. Santa
Barbara County's rugged southern coast, where the Pass is
located, definitely falls into what the state calls its "Wildland Urban
Interface" danger zone.
Residences near the Pass sit
high above sea level, relatively isolated. Winding mountain
roads inhibit evacuations. To help combat their peril, just over
20 years ago, the homeowners organized to form the Wildland
Residents Association. WRA subsequently created (and now
oversees) the San Marcos Pass Volunteer Fire Department, an
all-volunteer group with initial attack capabilities as
well as providing prevention services to the mountain
Michael Williams, WRA director almost 2
years now has, among other improvements, spearheaded the
addition of SMPERS 1040 AM, the San Marcos Pass Emergency
Radio System. His state-of-the-art system includes a fixed
ALERT AM station and, soon, 2 mobile broadcast stations.
Below is a detailed account of how Williams, using a
collaborative approach and professional follow-through,
is putting the system into place. Perhaps his experiences can inform
Read the case
study top-down; or, go directly to specific sections from
The Measures of Success
NPR and other media have featured the new Emergency Advisory
regularly use the system for public safety announcements (i.e.,
Caltrans, the highway patrol, county sheriff, Red Cross).
Residents are pleased.
The Santa Barbara County
supervisors blessed the SMPERS program by resolution.
Photo by Lyn Parra
Code 3 Communications
Wildland Residents Association
San Marcos Pass Volunteer Fire Dept
Williams has served as president-executive director of the
WRA-SMPVFD for the last 2 years, having been with the
department over 12 years. He has served as the department
training officer for 10 of those years. Williams is a member
of the Tri-County Training Officers Association (Cal-Chiefs)
as well as deputy director with the California State Fire
Fighters Association (CSFA), where he also serves on the
committee for volunteers. Williams is a founding member of the
local public information officers association, EPIC, and is
also a member of the American Society for Industrial Security.
He is a former police officer who now conducts corporate
investigations and security consulting. See his
article published by the International Association of
Email Michael Williams
Fires had caused residents of Santa Barbara County severe problems, especially related to traffic and
evacuation routes. They became frustrated with the lack of information
from commercial radio broadcasters. National broadcasting
conglomerates had bought
out many of those stations and, as standard
practice, set them to auto-pilot during weekends, without staff on hand to
report emergency news or alerts. Such stations, as a rule, cover
vast areas and may or may not be inclined to interrupt
commercially-sponsored programming with
information unique to remote areas, such as San Marcos Pass.
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Non-commercial, limited-range stations,
on the other hand, operate on dedicated public
service channels. As opposed to disc jockeys, they are run by emergency managers themselves
who have direct access and control over content. Broadcasts
can be programmed to repeat instructions and offer news
updates as long as necessary during brush fires or other disasters.
Michael Williams' research on behalf of Wildland
Residents Association revealed that these types of AM-band radio stations,
already in use by national parks and
across the county, could be the answer. Initially
conceived and developed as an experimental broadcast medium
Yellowstone National Park in the early '70s, the radio stations
and the technology utilized matured from frail tube-type
transmitter equipment and audio tapes to totally reliable and
fully solid-state transmitter equipment with digital audio that
can be recorded/re-recorded from a distant location via dial-up
They now also can incorporate live broadcasts.
The stations operate on
dedicated public-service frequencies (530-1700 kHz), administered
by the Federal Communications Commission.
message encoding technology, they can be programmed to automatically
receive and re-transmit national emergency and weather alerts to
specific areas being served. (Relevant county codes are programmed
in.) They can be set to interface with flashing
signs and community siren systems to encourage listenership. Designated emergency
authorities can, via land line and cell phone,
call in live or recorded
announcements, such as evacuation instructions.
Emergency Advisory Radio stations can be fixed or mobile
and set to run individually or in synchronized groups to
cover large areas. Each
station, according to
the FCC, may propagate to a radius of 5
miles from its transmitter/antenna system in all directions (equates to
about 75 square miles).
discovered, there is only one supplier in the country that offers stations
with all the features: Information Station Specialists.
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The community would establish its own
San Marcos Pass Emergency Radio System (SMPERS) on 1040 AM to include a fixed and two mobile Emergency
Advisory Radio stations. Each station in this 3-station grouping will be
able to transmit its own broadcast on its own
frequency. Or, all the stations can be synchronized to simulcast the
same messages at the same time on the same frequency. Each mobile
station has a dual-frequency capability.
Caltrans will erect reflective highway signs on both sides of San Marcos Pass, announcing the
72" by 42" signs will be placed on State Route 154,
one in each direction of travel.
California Transportation Department
(See also ISS' webpage
Flashing ALERT Sign systems.)
The community can see information about SMPERS at
As a testament to Williams' collaborative ability, local
commercial broadcasters, when on duty, also announce
the SMPERS call sign and frequency for emergencies.
Williams coordinated the SMPERS project by approaching the
Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council for program oversight to
avoid inter-agency politics and gamesmanship.
To a few naysayers who expressed doubt that WRA (a
non-profit corporation) would not be able to get a FCC
license, obtain funding, build a station or successfully run
it, Williams says, "Ultimately, the WRA did it all
without a hitch." The big and real supporters, he believes, are the California
Transportation Department (Caltrans), California State Highway Patrol (CHP),
Cross, county sheriff's office and the Fire Safe Council itself.
"AM radio is our next step in
improving overall communications during emergencies,"
emphasizes Williams. "When
the power goes out and telephone lines are down with no
computer and everything stopped, residents can turn on their
AM radios to hear emergency advisories. During an emergency, designated
people from state/local public service agencies call an answering-machine line and
immediately put an emergency update on the air to the
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SMPERS system has already grown in concept
to one fixed ALERT AM station and two
RESPONDER1 stations on
"Our fixed ALERT AM station," explains Williams, "is up and running atop Painted Cave at
San Marcos Pass in Santa Barbara, 2,800 AMSL,
with a clear overview
of the San Marcos Pass (State Route 154) and the mountain
communities. The transmitter and antenna are in an
isolated-style setup. The transmitter is so small it sits in
a weatherproof box about the size of a bedroom dresser. And
the antenna looks like little more than a whip antenna on a
telephone pole with some wires hanging off it. This is the same location of the community's VHF
repeater, so necessary utilities and phone services are already in place. It
can be monitored on any vehicle or portable commercial AM radio. We plan to add two RESPONDER1 mobile stations soon. Grant funding
is in process," Williams says. (See "The
Research" section on this page for a summary of system
When asked if he encountered
any problems during the installation, he responds, "None. The equipment arrived complete and was
quickly adapted to our requirements. The antenna was
challenging to tune. I suggest that anyone taking this project on
should plan on utilizing a good electrician and/or radio tech, if
they want to do it right. However, the truth is, just about anyone
could put this station up and get it on the air. We just wanted
perfection, and got it!"
The only complaint Williams says he has
received since the system first became operational is
that the signal cannot be heard over as wide a range as a
sometimes difficult for the
public at large to understand that commercial broadcasters
covering wider areas often cannot attend to unique concerns
and interrupt commercially sponsored programming to
repeat emergency instructions to the extent needed. This is
the advantage of specific-area broadcasting," Williams
Michael Williams' comments on the system supplier:
"ISS is great. The
equipment is first class. I have purchased millions of dollars of
communications equipment over the last 30 years. ISS is one of the
best vendors ever. The equipment is also well documented in the
service manual. Aside from the technical issues of antenna tuning
and signal readings, it is a true plug and play system."
installed the system themselves. "The process was
not difficult at all. The only problem we ran into was the
weather," Williams adds.
Bill Baker, president of Information Station Specialists,
"The Wildland Residents Association serves as a clear
example of implementing our Emergency Advisory Radio
solution in a competent and cost-effective manner."
Williams admits funding is a
big deal. "Even though the cost per station is relatively
minimal in the overall scheme of things for most
organizations [$19,000-24,000, including license and
installation], discretionary funds are hard to come by for
most public agencies. "The funding is out there," says
Williams, "but writing grants requires skill, the ability to
justify a program and associated costs."
that if more emergency managers thought "outside the box,"
they could build Emergency Advisory Radio station costs
right into other public projects, such as new schools, fire
stations and city halls. "These agencies," he concludes,
"often don't think twice about dropping millions of dollars
to switch over to 800-Mhz-trunked radio systems."
a copy of Williams' actual system proposal.)
a SMPVFD Vehicle
(yellow brush pants, foreground)
to its Emergency Advisory Radio system, the San Marcos
Pass Volunteer Fire Department has 1 International Type-2
engine, 2 Type-7 brush patrol trucks and is in the process of
obtaining 2 new compressed air/foam units to enable the
department to provide state of the art protection.
Photo by Bill Talanian
WRA installed the ALERT AM system itself, using
ISS instruction manuals and live phone technical support. (ISS
offers both partial and turn-key installation support, also, if needed,
and has a network of reps across the country who can visit sites.)
Though, in essence, the WRA owns and manages the station itself,
Michael Williams regularly taps local officials and broadcasting
talent to create emergency broadcasts. Success is assured via
interpersonal interaction with these folks and a set of well-written
policies and procedures to run on-going operations. Williams is the
driving force behind establishing these aids. (See an
As stated above, the Santa Barbara county/city fire
departments, Caltrans, the state highway patrol, local Red Cross and
sheriff's department help actualize the WRA's vision for improved
emergency communications through the Emergency Advisory Radio
Explains Williams, "Our radio station SMPERS is officially on the
air on 1040 AM 24/7, ready to provide updated information, as soon
as it becomes available. The CHP [CA Highway Patrol], county fire
agencies and Caltrans [CA Department of Transportation] have direct
access to make emergency announcements. We usually run about 10
minutes of broadcasting that repeat as needed."
Because a number of people are involved, it's important to have
someone visibly in charge. Right now, Williams is the "go-to" guy.
"The stations have to be run like a business," he says. "Public safety won't
work otherwise. We interact with local agencies in a
professional manner. Also, emergency announcements affect people's
lives. Someone could get hurt, if we screw up; or, we could get
sued. So we keep records of our broadcasts. We also have documented
policies and procedures
download) "It can't be a competition with
commercial broadcasters either. I've found they can either be your
friend or you enemy; there's no in-between and no competitive
stance. We work with them in a professional manner so they encourage
listeners in our area to tune to our stations for instructions."
Williams likes to work with
local radio talent to create regular programming. As it happens, his uncle, Jim Williams, a professional broadcaster most of his life,
serves as the voice of SMPERS. "Les Carroll and Geren Tiltz from
KZSB-1290 AM handle professional recording and sound uploads. Mark Ward is the voice and producer behind the
Santa Barbara Sheriff Department's spots. The station is also
connected to the California Office of Emergency Services for
broadcasting emergency messages to the Santa Barbara area
automatically," Williams recounts.
This level of involvement from government officials and
local talent reveals Williams' proclivity for collaboration to
ensure valid broadcasts listeners can rely on.
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The SMPERS 1040 AM (call sign WQBT795) system transmits emergency information, weather
alerts, special road construction and closures as well as current
fire updates. The first official emergency use of the station was
for a rock slide on Old San Marcos Pass Road in the same area as a
big slide last January. For this first use, the director of public
works called Williams at home after hours and asked him to put the
information on the air. "This was a big win for us on several
fronts," Williams says.
"The station was also used during a major
evacuation drill in Mission Canyon. Bruce Carter, manager of Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services, requested support," recounts
Williams. "The drill was a joint exercise with the City of Santa
Barbara and the County of Santa Barbara as well as the Red Cross,
ARES, other local support groups and SMPERS." Williams plans to reserve station use for serious
emergencies, not "scream 'Fire'
for every little call."
"The phone interface for creating and updating broadcasts works
really well," Williams adds. "For example, Marta Bortner of
Caltrans calls in her broadcasts from afar. They sound like they
were done right in a studio."
"At this point," enjoins Williams, "we like the local broadcasting
concept, where each station can have its own local information. Some
programming might be uniform on all stations, however. We are
planning to use the same frequency, so it becomes the common
emergency go-to frequency." (It should be noted, here, that
the mobile stations Williams plans to add can have dual-frequency
capability, so other broadcasts could run on other frequencies if
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The Public RelationsJust as important as acquiring funding, picking/installing a
capable system, and running credible broadcasts is marketing the program, so the Emergency Advisory Radio system can
achieve its intended purpose.
"Name recognition is important," shares Williams.
"We created a logo that goes on everything, i.e.,
our website, banners at education sessions, such as Red Cross
Media coverage is an aspect Williams didn't overlook either. "We've
had coverage we couldn't have bought, NPR for example."
In addition, the WRA plan incorporates
strategically placed highway signs (provided by Caltrans,
see above) to tell
motorists within range about the broadcasts.
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Sidebar: A Sample Broadcast
"You are listening to the San Marcos Pass Emergency Radio
System, WQBT795, operating on the frequency of 1040 kHz on your AM
dial, from the top of the San Marcos Pass in Santa Barbara. This
station is owned and operated by the Wildland Residents Association,
Incorporated, San Marcos Pass Volunteer Fire Department in
cooperation with the Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council.
"The San Marcos Pass Emergency Radio System serves the San Marcos
mountain communities of Painted Cave, San Marcos Trout Club, Rosario
Park, Paradise Canyon, East and West Camino Cielo as well as Highway
154 between Foothill Road and Paradise Road.
"This station will broadcast emergency information, weather alerts,
special road construction announcements and road closures. In the
event of a fire emergency, tune to this station for current fire
updates, fire activity reports, evacuation notices and road
information as provided by local authorities.
"This station will also automatically re-broadcast automated state
and federal emergency broadcast messages through the NOAA/EAS
"The San Marcos Pass Emergency Radio System is made possible by a
generous grant from the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation and the support
of the San Marcos Pass mountain community.
"For more information regarding the San Marcos Pass Emergency
System, please call the Wildland Residents Association at 964.7194
or visit our website www.wildlandresidents.org. Letters may be addressed
to the Wildland Residents Association, 5655 West Camino Cielo, Santa
Barbara, California 93105 (repeat)."
(Download an another
actual broadcast, 1.58 MB MP3.)
tune in to WQBT795 to get updates on everything from road
closures and brush fires to local weather. More importantly,
it can provide emergency information about bigger fires,
mudslides and evacuations."
7 MB PDF.)
Williams advises other communities considering an Emergency
Advisory Radio system: "Have a plan. Have a goal. Justify your
program in writing. Be professional and work with everyone. Do not
upset the commercial broadcasters. Set policy, and provide
supervision. Do not just plug it in and take a vacation, assuming
it is all going to run on automatic. Programming takes thought,
planning, script-writing and some professional talent, if you want
to sound professional and have credibility with the public. Also
pay attention to liability. Keep records; and keep your scripts.
Note the name and time of any emergency information. We write
scripts and keep them for the record. Professional recording is
done to keep the station sounding fresh and credible. Too many umms, ands and uhs will sound amateurish. "The stations are a
public relations and marketing tool. We might not be able to
advertise, but that does not mean we cannot give a professional
voice to our organization. The result is a positive public image
that helps support all our programs."
Williams believes that involving local officials goes a long way
toward ensuring success. "Because of our approach, our
relationship with other agencies and our credibility improved. The
ability to provide local announcements and emergency information
also improved, significantly, for an overall better result."
"One last thought," say Williams. "These stations are
great, but they are only as effective as those managing them. It's
not wise to put a station on the air (just to squelch community
complaints about a lack of information) then abandon it because of
the time involved in keeping programs current. Anyone purchasing a
station should be committed to it to receive the true benefits of
The broadcasts fill an important communication gap for residents
and visitors of San Marcos Pass. "Not bad for a group of
volunteers," Williams notes.
No, not bad at all, the community-minded would likely respond.