When All Else Fails…

Looking back at past major incidents and disasters, you will find that Ham radio operators have always been on the scene working to establish communications where needed. During Katrina, Hams spent weeks in the area working side-by-side with first responders. Some even set up a temporary FM broadcast station so authorities could provide updates to citizens.

That is only half the saying but it remains true today even with the Internet, wireless voice, text, data and video services available in many places around the world. Many elected officials have never used any type of wireless device other than their cell phone or now smartphone and/or tablet and they don’t understand why any other form of communications is needed even for their own Public Safety first responders. First responder networks are generally much more robust than commercial wireless (cellular) networks but they can still become overloaded or a portion of the network can be damaged by Mother Nature or humans.

There Is Amateur Radio!

What exactly does that mean? First, when there is a communications failure or multiple failures, amateur radio operators, commonly known as “Hams,” are available to put temporary communications systems into place. They bring their own radios, build temporary networks, and do not have to worry about what had been damaged and how long it will take to get it back on the air. They are self-sufficient and as important, they are communicators trained to provide communications services. Their job is to move urgent or even administrative traffic from one place to another. They do not act on any of the information, they make sure messages they communicate are clear, concise, and complete and do not change the meaning of the original message or the response. In other words, when they are working as communicators they are communicators and should be considered part of the network established to provide communications until the other systems are repaired or until the amount of traffic that was overwhelming the networks has subsided.

Today many cities, counties, and states are not continuing to nurture a relationship with the local amateur radio community. These entities believe, I am sure, that with all of the communications advances made in the past decade, Hams are no longer relevant. Fortunately, many agencies still do value the assistance of Hams and make use of them for many different types of events. But perhaps among today’s Public Safety agencies, city, county, and state-elected officials, there is no longer an understanding of why Hams can and need to play an important role during times of communications congestion or failure, so let’s start at that point.

Ham radio operators have the same type of infrastructure as many Public Safety agencies including mountaintop or tower-mounted radios that can be used to extend the range of Hams’ ability to talk to each other. In times of infrastructure collapse or damage, Ham communicators that respond bring an “instant network” with them. They have radios in their cars and handhelds, and they have radios that can be quickly and easily set up inside buildings with temporary antennas on the roof or on a pole. Radios and antennas can also be installed next to a building to provide communications where they have been lost or are needed. Some cities and counties have incident command posts or communications vans and some of these are also set up with amateur radio equipment that can be manned whenever needed. Funding is sometimes available for this equipment for a state or federal agency.

In some areas Hams have set up high-speed mesh data networks that can provide emergency access to broadband services including the Internet in some cases. Even if some of the network is damaged and out of service, there are ways to quickly get it back up and running, at least on a local level.

Another advantage Hams have is that they are not limited to specific radio channels as is the Public Safety community or to a specific wireless network operator. Instead, they are licensed to operate on various portions of the radio spectrum and can choose which portions to use depending on how far they need to communicate. They can provide local, statewide, area-wide, nationwide, and worldwide communications. They have their own satellites and can bounce communications off the moon as well. Hams have been employing innovative solutions, tying the Internet and other forms of communications together to provide communications services for many years.

Each year in June Hams in the many local communities spend a weekend simulating conditions where they arrive at a location, set up antennas and towers, use generators and batteries, put their equipment on the air, and stay on the air talking with other Hams in the next county over, the next state, or anywhere around the world for the weekend. During the rest of the year when not called into service, they hone their skills providing communications for charity events, marathons, races, and other events that would otherwise tax the Public Safety systems.

Looking back at past major incidents and disasters, you will find that Ham radio operators have always been on the scene working to establish communications where needed. During Katrina, Hams spent weeks in the area working side-by-side with first responders. Some even set up a temporary FM broadcast station so authorities could provide updates to citizens. Regardless of the incident or the emergency, if there is a failure or overload in communications, Hams respond to provide fast, solid, and reliable communications services to those who need it to do their jobs.

So, first and foremost, Hams bring the network to you. They set it up, find out with whom you need to communicate, and set up radios to accomplish that task. They can send voice and data with or without the Internet. They have provided critical information from hospital to hospital and to command centers about the number of victims, severity of injuries, and more. They set up at Red Cross shelters, animal shelters, and in some jurisdictions they off-load non-emergency traffic including administrative traffic, health and welfare, logistics, and more from the first responders’ networks.

It must be understood that Hams do not, ever, give orders, nor do they act on any of the information they move from place to place. They are communicators. Their sole purpose is to move information from one place to another, to convey information to places where it is needed when there is no other way to move it from point A to point B, C, or D. Think of them as a network. Yes, they are humans, male and female, but during an incident they are part of your radio communications system.

Hams also have their own emergency communications organizations. One of them is called ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) and is part of American Radio Relay League or ARRL, which is the national association for amateur radio. The other one is RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) that provides Hams to serve cities, counties, states, and FEMA in emergencies. In many places ARES and RACES function as an integrated organization, serving together seamlessly to assist whatever organizations are in need of temporary but critical communications capabilities.

A number of the agencies that no longer make use of Hams in their community may believe amateur radio is a dying and functionally obsolete hobby. They see what is being done with the Internet and commercial broadband networks and how the younger generations have many different communications choices. As with many professions and hobbies, Ham radio operators have been aging, with many being retired or semi-retired from skilled professions and still quite capable. Not only has the number of Hams been rising, over the past five or so years the number of younger Hams who have passed their Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license examinations has grown as well. They are fully conversant with the Internet, smartphones, tablets, and social media and they thrive on integrating and extending communications through amateur radio. Like it has for many Hams including myself, it will lead some of them into the field of communications as their vocation.

Communities need to better understand the types of assistance that can be provided by amateur radio operators. They can help amateur radio clubs and emergency organizations by making them part of their overall disaster communications plans and involving the Ham community in training for such events while Hams can demonstrate their capabilities and provide assistance to the communities.

In some communities Hams are welcomed into the emergency communications preparedness planning process and train with others who will also be involved. In some counties each sheriff’s sub-station or fire station has an amateur radio station installed in it at no cost to the county. Hams hold their meetings at these facilities and interact with the sheriffs, fire fighters, and dispatchers. They run drills together and take part in any form of incident planning where Hams may be of service.

Yet some counties and the cities within them have forgotten the amateur radio community exists. There will likely come a day when both types of communities will need the assistance of the Ham radio community. In the one that works with Hams, this assistance will be only a call away. In the county that has not worked with Hams for years, no one will even think to call on them or if they do, they won’t know whom to contact.

Let’s make this a year when Public Safety, elected officials, and Ham radio operators renew their bonds to serve the people of their community, not separate and apart from each other but as a combined and coordinated emergency response team that finds out what the problems are and fixes them quickly. If you look back at every major incident over the past twenty years you will find that communications failures of one type or another exacerbated problems that needed to be solved.

Let’s fix these problems once and for all.

Invite experienced amateur radio operators into your organization and talk to them. Or better yet, find out how many Hams are already working for you or for your communications or IT department. I am sure the number will surprise you as will the level of sophistication of many ARES and RACES groups.

Andrew M. Seybold, W6AMS

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