The Mountain Area Safety Taskforce has created a committee to investigate what actions might be necessary to improve, strengthen and expand the ability to broadcast emergency messages on the Hill.

Last month, several county and local officials met at the Idyllwild Fire Station to explore what options might be best to achieve these goals. Concern for this issue has been raised in the past.

In May 2015, the Mile High Radio Club prepared an assessment of the facilities and capabilities shortly after it assumed responsibility for operating WNKI. The report began, “WNKI … is in immediate need for major upgrading for the benefit of the area’s residents … WNKI signal coverage falls short of covering this entire region.”

The first step after last month’s meeting was to put the efforts of MAST, which is composed of representatives from public safety agencies at all levels of government — local, county, state and federal — toward investigating and finding an appropriate solution.

Jerry Hagen, emergency services coordinator for Riverside County Supervisory District 3, was appointed the chair of the MAST committee and has begun to shape its composition and role.

“… I need to accomplish a few tasks designed to ensure that this subcommittee has a clear goal so that I can avoid ‘mission creep,’” he said. “The process of extending traveler advisory or emergency messaging across the mountain top has been ongoing for quite awhile without success. It is my intent to succeed and bring this to a conclusion in the shortest time frame possible.”

MAST incident commanders all agreed that more should be done to improve this capability. The first step will involve WNKI, the emergency broadcast station approved for the Hill. But in today’s world, AM radio broadcasts are only part of the long-term solution.

One of the attendees of the December meeting was Jeff Van Wagenen, the assistant county executive for Public Safety. He made it clear that the County Executive’s Office is aware of this problem and wants to solve it.

“It was good to have the discussion. We want to strengthen the [emergency] communication on the Hill and that could include the radio station, partnership with HAM operators, or others. We want the necessary information to get to whom it needs to serve.”

Currently, the license for WNKI, an AM broadcast station, belongs to the Idyllwild Fire Protection District. The district has a contract with MHRC allowing it to operate the station.

MHRC has a plan for improving WNKI’s capability, according to Bill Tell, current MHRC president. MHRC has been working on implementing the plan for several years, ever since it assumed operational responsibility for WNKI.

The club’s goal and county officials concur with this — to have the capability to send notices or warnings from Poppet Flats in the north, to Pinyon and Anza to the south. These are essentially the same communities included in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, Tell noted.

Because of the mountainous terrain, some areas within Idyllwild and Fern Valley also have difficultly receiving the signal, he added.

The club has gotten donations and has installed some equipment, but is not close to completing all the steps in the plan, Tell said. “We’re very close to digital transmission, which will enable us to do more.”

Some at the MAST meeting suggested the committee explore options that include Twitter or Facebook. They thought many younger people rely less on their car radio than on their cell-phone applications.

Tell agreed about the value of expanding the means to notify or warn people about emergencies or incidents on the Hill. However, he pointed out that the value of the Internet is substantially diminished when electric power goes out, as it did in early December for 28 hours. This also affects cell phones that have to be charged for use.

However, MHRC’s initial report stated, “The existing FCC station license power and antenna height restrictions limit upgrades …” The club recommends creating a ribbon network between Poppet Flats and Anza. This would involve using multiple transmitters positioned in a string. This also would allow the simulcast of a live-stream broadcast over the Internet, according to Tell.

Various state and federal fire stations along highways 74, 243 and 371 could serve as locations for the equipment, he suggested. At that time, the cost to build the ribbon network was $86,500.

HAM radio operators can still function in this environment, he argued, but agreed that few people have HAM radio reception.

Tell was excited and grateful for the expanded involvement of the county and other officials.