Ernie Jones Retires from PBEM

News Article
Ernie Jones talking with NET volunteers in PPE.
Ernie Jones wearing black shirt and gesturing with his right arm.
Ernie Jones holding a bat with outstretched wings.
Ernie Jones and his son with the French Alps in the background.

Ernie Jones was a stranger to call signs and other classic ham radio lingo when he was hired by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) in 2015. Now considered an "elmer," Ernie has trained hundreds across the metro area on proper radio technique.

“It’s going to be the cockroaches and amateur radio operators that survive,” says Ernie. “In a disaster, everything is about information. You don’t have information without communication and the radio is the communication tool.”

Back then, Ernie was tasked with developing PBEM's Basic Earthquake Emergency Communications Nodes (BEECN) program. BEECNs are temporary radio communications sites staffed by volunteers following a major earthquake. When phone lines are down, community members can find a nearby BEECN to call for emergency assistance. 

Prior to PBEM, Ernie spent 22 years doing community relations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In his typical matter-of-fact way, Ernie will tell you he worked 55 Presidentially declared emergencies in more than half of the U.S. states. “And one territory,” he offers. 

“Disasters throw people’s lives into chaos,” says Ernie. “This type of work feels like I'm helping people put one foot in front of the other, taking deliberate, positive and consequential steps to put their lives back in order.”

Ernie's last day working for the City of Portland is Thursday, Jan. 25. In his time at PBEM, he has served under six bureau directors (including interim directors) and four elected officials (including the Mayor). “I enjoy working with interesting people. People in emergency management come from all walks of life. I have worked with smart and engaged colleagues who want to be here.” 

Ernie’s training for an emergency management career began in outdoor education. He ran an outdoor program at a private school in Seattle. Prior to that, he worked for Outward Bound, where he led youth in backpacking, cross country skiing, whitewater rafting, whitewater kayaking and mountaineering. “The nature of outdoor education is, you make a plan for the day and things sometimes change quickly. You adapt to that change.”

Ernie has also served Multnomah County and the global community through his work in election monitoring, validating signatures for mail-in ballots, delivering ballots to people with physical disabilities and helping to evaluate contested ballots for approximately a dozen elections at the Multnomah County Elections Office.

Ernie's election work has taken him further afield as well. He's served as a U.S. state department election monitor since 2005. This work has taken him to the far reaches of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and beyond, affirming his belief that “there are welcoming and wonderful people all over the planet.” 

The BEECN program’s success has been Ernie’s steady approach. He holds BEECN drills every three months, BEECN trainings once a month, responds to volunteer emails constantly and coordinates the activities of licensed amateur radio volunteers. “This job isn’t about the big milestones,” he says. “It’s about the continuity and minutia of keeping BEECNs supplied with a cache of batteries,” said Ernie.

Finding new BEECNs and maintaining established sites “takes some persistence and a little bit of luck,” said Ernie.  The work comes down to scouting locations, making appeals for referrals and knocking on doors. He is proud of the two newest sites on Harbor Way Meridian and Elizabeth Caruthers Park. “From an earthquake standpoint, these places have low-quality soil and are home to some vulnerable populations,” he said. “If phone lines go down, they will need help.”

He will also look fondly upon the meaningful work he undertook as a duty officer during extreme cold events, where he transported people living outside to warming centers. 

Looking back on his long and varied career, Ernie says, “You have to be open to new experiences.” This attitude helped Ernie land a spot on an international scientific expedition to Sulawesi, Indonesia at age 21. With no science background, Ernie parlayed his experience with Outward Bound into an assignment inventorying the bat population at what is now the Morowali Nature Reserve as part of a comparative tropical rain forest study. 

With his newfound time, Ernie is planning “time outdoors doing outdoor stuff.” This will include plenty of backpacking and hiking around Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier, as well as eventually climbing Mt. Blanc in the French Alps. Throughout all this, he plans to continue pursuing his passion for travel photography—and he’s determined to organize the basement. 

For most of his colleagues and guests of the Emergency Coordination Center, Ernie has been a mainstay in the emergency management space for the last decade, including during the unpredictable months following the Covid-19 pandemic. Even on  blue sky days, when the building feels cavernous and quiet, Ernie has been a steady presence, showing up every day with persistence and a little bit of luck.

You can watch the Portland City Council Proclamation for Ernie Jones Day of Appreciation here: