On Jan. 2, the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club dedicated its communications facility atop the Vic Trace Reservoir to Bill Talanian, a former club trustee who has dedicated more than 40 years of volunteer work.
“I was quite surprised when I received the plaque because I consider my work somewhat insignificant in the scope of what the club does,” Talanian told Noozhawk. “But I’ll accept the dedication for all the people that work with me and the amazing team we have.”
The Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club is a nonprofit, public benefit corporation that was founded in 1920 when a group of local wireless experimenters assembled an antenna on the roof of the YMCA building in Santa Barbara.
In its 100 years of operation, the club has come to operate a wide network of analog and digital communications systems that do not rely on traditional landline or cellular network infrastructure, according to Levi Maaia, club director at large and K6TZ trustee.
The 150-member club of volunteer amateur radio operators has proven crucial in situations of disaster and routinely supports many civic and educational activities.
When the roaring Thomas Fire blazed through the hills of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in 2017, SBARC members were able to observe aerial firefighting efforts firsthand and pass on immediate information often before it was reported by official sources or local media, Maaia said.
“We started sharing information with people on the edge of the fire area and had other folks listening to police scanners or traffic on the radio reporting back,” he said. “We had a gathering of data that would make a lot of newsrooms jealous because we were a really good aggregator of frontline information that was coming in from other efforts.”
The radio club also operates emergency radio communications stations at the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Red Cross and the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, and has a mobile rover vehicle with global communications capabilities, according to Maaia.
“We’re like a fire extinguisher on the wall,” Talanian said. “In the event that something might happen, we’re ready. We don’t have emergency communications everyday, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be prepared.”
Through its wide range of systems, SBARC is able to pick up and track wireless signals and transmissions from ships and airplanes, among other wireless frequencies.
“We have a multitude of technologies. It’s not just one thing. It’s a whole network of different technologies and different types of frequencies,” Maaia said.
First responders and other disaster relief groups monitor the local airwaves remotely using software-defined radios hosted by the club, Maaia said. Additionally, a microwave data link built by club volunteers provides Internet connectivity to the remote Diablo Peak on Santa Cruz Island.
From there, a high-definition video camera feeds live images from the peak, allowing mariners, aviators, scientists and the public to keep an eye on unprecedented weather patterns.
“It’s really an exciting hobby because we get to do something interesting to us, but when we get together, we’re able to have an impact on the community when there’s a disaster or emergency,” Maaia said.
Levi Maaia is the director at large for the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club. (Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club / Santa Barbara Wireless Foundation photo)
As board members come and go, Talanian has been the one constant in the club during the past 40 years, Maaia said. Talanian makes sure that the club is in compliance with the Federal Communications Commission regulations, ensures continuity in leadership at the executive level, and keeps all club members informed and connected with operations.
“My forte has always been trying to hold everything together like a big classroom with people doing various functions,” Talanian said.
Talanian was instrumental in getting funding to build the state-of-the-art communications facility atop the Vic Trace Reservoir that has been the hub for the SBARC communications network since 2011. He also ensured that SBARC had links to important outside agencies, such as the Sheriff’s Squadron, Search and Rescue and the Office of Emergency Management, according to Maaia.
“I know people who are much younger than him that do far less,” Maaia said. “The amount of energy he has and what he does for the club is remarkable.”
The SBARC recently formed the Santa Barbara Wireless Foundation within its nonprofit structure to develop and support collaborations not only of public safety but educational initiatives and scientific research as well.
The Scripps Institute in San Diego uses the foundation’s ship tracking data to determine where marine mammals might encounter vessel traffic in the Santa Barbara Channel. The Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District uses the same tracking data to enforce commercial vessel speed limits in the channel.
Volunteer radio operators also provide communications services during special local events such as Old Spanish Days Fiesta and foot and bike races, Maaia said. Club volunteers also have coordinated multiple radio contacts between local students and astronauts aboard the International Space Station through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program.
The SBARC and the Santa Barbara Wireless Foundation together operate five remote communications sites throughout the county, each providing unique capabilities to the group and giving educators, researchers and public safety groups essential data.
“There’s something about communicating wirelessly that just feels magical to us,” Maaia said.