Amateur radio operators: How to prepare to assist in disasters

In a previous post, I covered a bunch of ways in which you can prepare to be useful after a disaster. If you’re interested in helping as a radio amateur, or you’re already a ham and want to get more involved in emergency communications (EmComm), then here are some additional things you can do to prepare and to be available as a resource when needed.

Get licensed

If you’re not already a licensed amateur radio operator, go ahead and get your license. See information in my previous post about how to do that.

Join the American Radio Relay League and participate in ARES

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the primary organization in the U.S. for advocacy and lobbying on behalf of amateur radio. They provide publications, training, and many other services, as well as ARES, Amateur Radio Emergency Services. In many areas including here in Madison county, AL, it is through the ARES organization that the Emergency Management Agency makes use of amateur radio resources when needed. Using this list of ARRL sections, contact your section Emergency Coordinator, and ask them how to get more involved.

Take ARRL EmComm courses on line

Online courses offered by the ARRL are a great resource. They aren’t free, but the cost is reasonable for the value you will receive. Start with the EC-001 course. Prerequisites include some of the free FEMA courses mentioned in my previous posting.

Participate in RACES if available

In many parts of the country, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) is a protocol under which local emergency management agencies make use of amateur radio operators to provide communications services when needed. In Madison County, we operate ARES and RACES as a joint organization, with very good results. Your local, county, or state Emergency Management Agency (EMA) may be able to provide more information about opportunities in your area, or you can get more information from other local hams, which brings me to my next suggestion:

Join your local amateur radio club

The quality and nature of local amateur radio clubs varies widely. Some are simply social gatherings, others provide technical programs for education of members, and some are highly involved in public service and emergency communications. We’re very fortunate in our area to have the Huntsville Amateur Radio Club (HARC), an active club, as well as a DX club that has a very technical orientation. Try your local clubs, and even if they don’t seem like what you’re looking for, ask people for suggestions – asking “I’m interested in emergency communications, who should I talk to around here?” may get you to the right people or club.

Ask questions

Keep asking questions like the one above. You can call the local Red Cross chapter and ask the person who does disaster assistance there which organizations in the area provide emergency communications. Ask people on your local amateur radio repeater. Listen for the times when local training nets are conducted, and announcements of local meetings. Check into the net, and feel free to ask for more information if they haven’t provided the information you need.

Find out who maintains your local repeaters and support them

There are a lot of factors that go into being ready to mount an effective response during and after a disaster, and infrastructure is a really important one. Amateur radio repeaters are a very important asset, and it’s easy to forget them when they’re not needed. However, good maintenance and continuous support means that they will be ready when needed. In my area, a number of repeaters are jointly supported through the North Alabama Repeater Association (web site is out of date), which funds repeater maintenance through memberships. We make it easy for people to support NARA by conducting a joint membership renewal drive each year with a single form for the Huntsville Amateur Radio Club, NARA, the Amateur Television club, and the packet radio club. We also have a dedicated group of hams who handle the maintenance tasks for the repeaters.

Participate in the practice nets and drills

Check in to your local nets, and participate in drills and Simulated Emergency Tests (SETs). Volunteer to be net control for training nets. All this builds skill and verifies that your equipment works but more importantly, it helps you build the social connections you need to know who is who within the local disaster response community.

Go to Field Day

Every year, ARRL sponsors Field Day on the fourth full weekend in June. This year it’s on June 25th and 26th. This is a good chance to meet amateur radio operators, many of whom will already be involved in emergency communications. Most Field Day sites have a “Get On The Air” station set up for new hams and non-hams to have an opportunity to talk on the air under the supervision of a licensed radio amateur. If you are already licensed for HF, try working a station – the skills you gain working a pileup of stations calling you is great experience. Hint: if you show up around lunch time on Saturday, a lot of Field Day sites will have a bunch of hams hanging around during lunch, and you can meet people and ask questions. To locate a Field Day site near you, try this online locator.

Go to Hamfests

Attending hamfests is a great chance to learn new things, especially at the hamfests which offer technical forums including topics on emergency communications. Like Field Day, you can meet other people with similar skills and interests, and hear stories about what worked and didn’t work during past disasters. See if you can find one near you.

Work DX, and try some contests

There’s skill involved in being a good radio operator, juggling technical management of your equipment with information transfer, and in training your brain to hear useful signals among noise. The more you are on the air, the better those skills get. If you have a license that grants you use of the High Frequency (HF) bands, then working distant (DX) stations is good experience. So is working contests, even if you aren’t equipped or motivated to be a serious competitor. Trying to keep up with the pace of a contest while operating your equipment and accurately recording information will build the same skills you’ll need in the middle of a disaster when multiple stations are calling, events are breaking fast, and you need to keep up.

Participate in public service events (marathons, bike races, etc)

This is good chance to meet other people active in your area, learn about repeater coverage in different areas near where you live, and compare the effectiveness of different pieces of equipment. You’ll also probably get to know the people who are active in emergency communications in your area, and will already know them before you’re needed in an emergency. Public service also builds awareness within the community, and demonstrates capabilities and professionalism to other organizations with which you may work during and after disasters.

Get some operating time in each of the radio rooms you may need to work in

If there are stations or radio rooms set up locally, get familiar with them in advance. For example, we have stations locally at the Emergency Operations Center, the American Red Cross, and at several area hospitals. See if you can visit and operate these stations. Find out which frequencies and nets they participate in during training, and learn their call signs. See whether they need operators present during Simulated Emergency Tests, and volunteer to get trained on their equipment. If they have HF capability and you can operate on HF, see whether you can use the station during a contest or on field day, or for a state QSO party. Being trained on all these locations improves your ability to help, and helps insure that any problems with those stations are spotted early, before an actual emergency.

Meet your ARRL officers

If you are an ARES member or want to be, then introduce yourself to your ARRL officers and get to know your Emergency Coordinator (EC) and assistant ECs. Many areas do not have an active ARES or RACES organization, and local emergency management officials may even be hostile toward volunteer hams. Sometimes this is due to past history, and sometimes due to a lack of understanding for what a good volunteer organization can bring to the table. In this case it may be difficult, and you may be the one who pioneers your local organization. Your best approach is to organize and train, and continue to demonstrate a high level of usefulness and professionalism. Eventually, your value will be obvious.

Starting from Scratch

If there isn’t an active emergency communications organization where you are, volunteer to start one, and contact the ARES ECs in neighboring counties and ask for help. It can take a long time to establish very close working relationships with Emergency Management Agencies. The effective collaboration that we enjoy between ARES/RACES and the EMA here in Madison County is due to years of very hard work, a lot of it by a handful of very dedicated people.

Summing it up

There’s a lot listed here. You don’t have to do all of it, or even much of it, to be useful in your community. After the tornado disaster here on May 27th, many hams participated who only had a mobile or handheld radio, and who had EmComm training and were not members of our ARES/RACES groups. Almost anyone who was available was able to contribute. But – if you want to maximize your effectiveness and the contribution you can make, then participation will help you achieve that. I haven’t mentioned equipment at all. It does cost money to establish a highly capable station, but the entry level equipment is not too expensive and to me, is worth the additional safety and peace of mind it brings to my family, even without my abilities to perform public service. It doesn’t matter what equipment you have if you don’t have the skills to operate it and understand how you can help during an emergency.

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About Steve

I'm Steve Conklin, AI4QR I'm employed by Canonical, Inc as a Linux Kernel Engineer. Interests include Linux, open source software and hardware, electronics and music, and amateur radio.
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One Response to Amateur radio operators: How to prepare to assist in disasters

  1. Pingback: Illruminations: Amateur radio operators: How to prepare to assist in disasters | The Linux Minute

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