Sunday, September 4, 2011

12 - A back up system

Vincent Mazzaro, coordinator for the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management Office, first encountered Lt. Robert Circi of the Port Authority police in early 2001.
Circi was in charge of the county’s OEM radio communication system, and an order that came down from the federal government required each state and county OEM office to install a back up communication system commonly called RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) to make certain that if all official communication systems go down, local OEM could still reach out. RACES had existed since 1952 as part of the all Volunteer Communication Reserve within the U.S. government for times of extraordinary need.
“We got the order back in 1999,” Mazzaro said. “If every other radio system goes down due to some emergency, this would allow us to talk to people, figuring that there will still be private citizens out there with Citizen Band radios.
The RACES system was made up of certified by unpaid officials like Circi – who had some official capacity in government but also had a deep personal commitment to amateur radio communication.
Mazzaro said the FEMA required RACES to be installed so that in the event of an emergency, officials could still make contact with hospitals, the state and other emergency services.
“While we had a RACES system in Secaucus a long time ago, we let it lapse,” Mazzaro said. “We had a lot of the equipment we needed, but until the order came from Washington, we didn’t use it for anything.”
Circi, also a member of the Jersey Coastal Emergency Services Monitoring Team, was a huge amateur radio fan, and in what spare time he had, between his job at the port authority and his work on EMS, he talked to people around the world. He was the co-founder of the Jersey City Radio Club which was later named after him.
“The county decided to set up a RACES system in Secaucus because we already had a fully functional communication center here,” Mazzaro said.
The town had converted its museum to a complete communication center and it had seen service during two train crashes during the late 1990.
“Bob volunteered to set up our system and helped fill in the missing pieces,” Mazzaro said. “He was responsible for putting us back on the air.”
Although born and raised in North Bergen and station at the Jersey City Port Authority facilities, Circi lived in Nutley and made his way to Secaucus on Evenings and weekends for the project that took months to complete.
“He would call us up at odd times for him to meet him down at our place,” Mazzaro said.
Bob Kickey, formerly a deputy director of the county OEM, remembered working side by side with Circi to install the wiring and the antenna.
“Bob was afraid of heights,” Kickey said. “And we would joke about which one of us would go up on the roof to install the antenna. He was a great guy.”
Kickey worked with Circi over the summer of 2001 to get the project done by the fall.
“He would call me on a Saturday evening and ask if I was ready to go to work,” Kickey said. “Bob, I’d say, it’s Saturday night.”
But Circi seemed to sense an urgency no one else did, pushing himself to get the project done for some yet unimagined future event.
This went on for months as the county and state geared up for a disaster test scheduled for Sept. 18, 2001. No one really expected the RACES system to figure prominently in this test. Indeed for the most part the RACES system was expected to remain largely unused.
But it got used on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We had to use it to contact the state when all the other system went down. No one in the county could contact the state at that time, but we could. I kept saying, `Oh, boy, if only Bob could see this. Wouldn’t Bob be proud?’”
It wasn’t until later that they learned that Circi was among those listed as missing when the North Tower went down.

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