Amateur-Radio Emergency Services and Disasters

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The second morning after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast seems like a good time for Electronic Design readers to think about ham radio and emergency response issues.

I got involved in these issues myself when my neighbor, Dave, told me about his experiences after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Dave’s a lawyer, so he was down at the Courthouse when the quake struck.  At the time, the courthouse and the police station were co-located.  The police station had (still has) a ham radio station (HF, VHF, UHF) on the premises.  Those were both good things, because what there was of a public safety communications structure in Northern California came down with the quake, and for all anybody knew, so had the overpasses on 101 and I-280, the main north-south corridors.  (They hadn’t, but were rumored to.)

For the first long hours, the mayor and the police and fire chiefs had no idea what was going on.  During that period, Dave, who was part of a trained and drilled ham radio emergency services organization, got on the air, into an emergency net and filled them in.

You’re probably thinking: That was 1989.  All they had was spotty Gen-1 cell coverage.  Today, the mayor and the chiefs would be communicating on their iPads before the first aftershocks rippled under their feet.  So here’s Important Thing #1:

1.                   Even today, the infrastructure for cellular communication runs mostly on underground fiber.  Fiber breaks.  I know a place around here where, a few years ago, some persons not yet publicly identified, went down some manholes and cut a few fiber links.  In the ensuing hours, people in hospitals, ambulance services, police and fire stations, all thought, “Gee, this is a slow night.” 

Citizens who were calling those emergency-response guys couldn’t get through by voice, so they did what?  They texted.

Texts looked like they were getting through, but they were actually just being buffered in the cell towers.  Fortunately, it was a slow night.  Eventually, hams did play a part in getting things straightened out, but it took most of the night and into the morning. Now, here’s Important Thing #2

2.      Ham radio has changed; many citizens’ desire to serve in emergency communications is a big part of that.

When I got my general license in 1960, I had to take a bus and a subway to the Federal Building in downtown New York, demonstrate an ability to send and receive Morse code at 13 words/minute, draw a Hartley oscillator, and calculate some simple resonances and stuff.  Today, the code requirement is gone, and most of the questions are about differences among various operating modes and regulations.  Most people can sit through a cram course and pass the test the same day. 

In my experience, the reason many of them are doing that is to get involved with emergency communications.  (Amusingly, some of them also go on to become CW DX-hounds for the sport of it.)   

Now here’s the most important thing.

3.      One can’t just get a license, wait for a disaster, and show up.

You're a liability if you haven't had training.  The guy behind the glass at the police station won’t give you the time of day.  This is not a decision you make and sit on until the stuff hits the fan.

You have to work at it.  The best place to start is with Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training. That’s because it’s more important that you and your neighbors work together to secure your home and neighborhood and collect some information about damage and injuries to communicate to the public safety people than that you show up and immediately get cluelessly underfoot.

CERT training will also introduce you to the Incident Command System, giving you some idea of what might need to be communicated, and by whom and to whom.

There’s a choice of potential organizations.  The classic is the Amateur Radio Relay League’s (ARRL’s)  ARES and RACES organizations.  They’re explained here:

But that’s not the only option, and you may find that, in your area, other groups are better organized, or have better leadership, or for whatever reason are more compatible with you.  I’m a member of the local ARES group, which has excellent organization and a wide range of practice activities.  (For example, you have no idea how challenging it can be to participate in a networking operation until you have been involved in keeping up with all the groups participating in a city Fourth of July parade.  Or with a day-long bicycling event for hundreds of participants over a hundred-mile course with sag-wagons, aid stops, lost bikers, and terrain that challenges the use of repeaters.)

Alternatively, in some areas, the Red Cross may be the most interesting group.  When one of our communities had a major gas main explode, killing eight people and leveling 35 homes, there was a massive evacuation, and the job of the Red Cross was to manage the task of finding food and shelter for all those people.  It was a massive logistics effort that the trained Red Cross hams executed brilliantly.

Locally, we also have a special unit of volunteer communicators who work with the county  Sheriff’s organization, particularly on Search-and Rescue activities.  These are all good alternatives, but you wouldn’t have time to work with them all.  It’s a good idea to look around before you decide where to commit your good intentions..

4.      You will learn useful stuff.

Quick!  What’s the most unexpectedly dangerous kind of common vehicle in a highway crash?  My CERT trainer, a Sheriff’s deputy, says it’s a pool-services truck.  Mix those chemicals and you can send out a cloud of chlorine gas across a whole neighborhood.  That’s good to know any time you’re out on the freeway.

Maybe more importantly from a ham radio perspective, is that you learn where stuff is.  Most of our local hospitals, schools and firehouses, even the manager’s office at the local general-aviation airport, have ham antennas, at least for 2-meters and 440-MHz.  Where are the antenna drops?  The local volunteers know, and without that knowledge, the drops are useless.

Then, what’s the drill for getting into the police station?  What do you say at the intercom by the door?  Once you get in, where’s the ham radio equipment?  How does it work?  How do you run a net with simplex, if that’s what’s called for?  What are the fallback plans when Plan A is a bust?  What’s it like to “shadow” a politician or an incident commander during an event?  There’s stuff you learn from being taught and stuff you learn from doing.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably an alpha geek.  You may or may not have a ham license, or if you once had one, it may be defunct or out of date.  Or you may be young enough to have decided that ham radio is just too “twentieth-century,” too much “getting the serum through to Nome” to be relevant.  Well, yeah.  Until the next time the text messages start backing up in the cell-tower buffers and the freeways are blocked by fallen overpasses. . .  or the subway tunnels are full of seawater.  Give it a thought.  You’re needed.

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Don Tuite

Don Tuite covers Analog and Power issues for Electronic Design’s magazine and website. He has a BSEE and an M.S in Technical Communication, and has worked for companies in aerospace,...
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