Donation Puts Ham Radio Operators in the Driver’s Seat


When earthquakes knock communications off line and wildfires place firefighters in remote canyons, members of a local ham radio club are ready to step up to the transceiver.

Only now they can do it in style.

The Conejo Valley Amateur Radio Club has turned a donated van into a command center that can travel to all corners of the county and restore communications in emergencies.

GTE Inc. donated seed money and a van, club members overhauled the interior, and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department has pledged to maintain the vehicle and pay for its gas and insurance.


The sheriff’s badge is painted on the driver’s door and identifies the van as part of the Office of Emergency Services, a state agency run locally by the sheriff.

Should the communications systems for the Sheriff’s Department, the Ventura County Fire Department or the American Red Cross go out, the club’s Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service has vowed to be there.

“It could happen. There is a possibility that in a major earthquake, all communications would go down,” said Sgt. Rod Mendoza, the Sheriff’s Department’s liaison to the civilian radio club members. “Of course you’d have your cellular phones. But those are going to be jammed.”

Should freeway overpasses crumble, pockets of the Conejo Valley will be cut off from the outside world, Mendoza said. The ham operators, he said, “are a viable, very valuable resource. They’re all artisans in their own right. They have a special skill.”


Ham radio operator Don Munding remembers the Greenmeadow brush fire of 1993. While sheriff’s deputies met inside a warm trailer at the command center, he and his fellow club members huddled around a card table, facing the elements head-on.

It was time to get nicer digs.

Thus the idea of a souped-up van with accommodations to handle six club members and their radios was born. Two years ago, GTE gave them a 1984 Ford Econoline, after years of loyal service.


And it showed, said Joe Buhek, director of the van project. “Battleship grade,” he called it. The old vehicle rattled like a 4.0-magnitude quake. It featured grates meant to separate the driver from the tools. Plush it was not.


“We had it gutted. We got the inside out and then we began our wiring. We installed cabling and antennas,” 10 of them, Buhek said. He proudly points to the AC and DC outlets, the TV and phone hookups and the solar panels on top intended as backup for the four batteries inside.


Inside, the van has been insulated and carpeted sky blue. Cabinets flush to the driver’s side feature four cubbyholes for radios and their operators. The two front seats double as two more stations.

And the van isn’t finished. For now, club members will have to haul their ham radios into the van when disaster strikes.

Through fund-raising efforts, the group hopes to install permanent radios and buy or acquire computers, a printer, a scanner and cellular phone.

That’s where Conejo Valley Days comes in. “Buck’n” Chris Buckett, president of the Conejo Valley Jaycees and candidate for honorary marshal, is raising money for the amateur radio club.


In addition, the hams will show off their vehicle at Conejo Valley Days events in late April. The van will appear in the annual parade, on the fairgrounds and at the chili cook-off, Buhek said.

In the spirit of the annual community celebration, Buhek, a 38-year Thousand Oaks resident, said the van is just a way to say thank you to the community.