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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Crowdsourcing incentives, and applications for open source communities

While it’s only a single study (disclaimer, blah blah blah), Here is some interesting data to consider for everyone involved in open source projects which have a community, or would like to. Especially for corporations for whom a community is an important part of your model, and community leaders for whom a corporation is a major driver of your project.

The study isn’t directly related to community, but you should be able to make your own connections.

I will point out one result in particular, which is that “[the results] suggest that workers perform most accurately when the task design credibly links payoffs to a worker’s ability to think about the answers that their peers are likely to provide.” When I read this, my first thought was of the Linux kernel process, in which contributions generally undergo public review on mailing lists. New contributors quickly learn to think about what mailing list participants will think about their contributions. We use the same process within the Ubuntu kernel team, with public review by peers. Many other projects do as well. So is the kernel development process the same scheme, with a feedback loop wrapped around it? (i.e. you actually DO get the feedback, you don’t just think about it).

This reward scheme, called “Bayesian Truth Serum”, produced more accurate results than schemes which awarded a bonus for accuracy!

I can think of a few really simple redux statements that might be made about how this applies to community projects, but (as this blog is subtitled) I think it’s more complicated than that. I’d rather just throw this much to community leaders and let them think about it.

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Would you like to help after the next disaster?

There’s a fundamental fact about disasters and disaster recovery that I try to explain every chance I get.

Here it is again:

The roles that can be filled by untrained volunteers during and after a disaster are very limited. Walk-up volunteers are generally limited to performing manual labor type tasks, and unable to do any real work until days after the disaster. There can be a need for this sort of spontaneous volunteer, but often there is not. After the recent tornadoes here it took thousands of volunteers to begin clearing trees and covering damaged houses.

Other efforts to help are often ineffective, or even counter-productive. Collecting old clothes, shoes, etc is easy for people to do, but the tasks of collecting, sorting, transporting, and matching these items to recipients are often impossible to complete in an effective and timely manner.

But – there are ways to contribute your specific skills to disaster recovery, no matter what they are. After a disaster, there is an almost immediate need for volunteers trained in specific areas important to recovery. These volunteers aren’t first responders, and often don’t even enter the areas of greatest damage (following a natural disaster). They’re critical to the efforts to get food, clothing, medical care and shelter to affected people. You can be one of those volunteers, but you have to be trained first. Right now is a good time to get started.

There are many agencies who participate in disaster recovery. My perspective is as a Red Cross volunteer and as an amateur radio operator in the United States, but there are equivalent agencies in many countries.

Some U.S. organizations I am familiar with are Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, the Salvation Army, and The American Red Cross. Each of these organizations needs people with all sorts of skills. Feeding, Sheltering, and caring for people involves cooking, bookkeeping, inventory control, logistics, communications, computer administration, damage assessment, public speaking, counseling, child care, pet care, and more.

If you are interested, sign up today so you can be ready next time. You can call your local Red Cross office about signing up to help with Disaster Services (or in other areas), or see whether your church or other group has an affiliation with disaster relief. Most agencies are understanding about the demands of family and work, so assignments are always voluntary and you generally don’t have to make a firm commitment to be “on call” unless you have a leadership role in the organization. Additionally, a lot of employers are generous about allowing their employees to help with disaster recovery. My employer, Canonical Inc, was very supportive after the tornado disaster here.

But there are other things you can do to prepare – not just to help on a large scale but also to help your family.

Here are some:

Get an amateur radio license and a radio

Getting your entry level license is not hard, and it can save your life or that of someone near you. During our recent five-day power outage, cell phones were not working for many people, and amateur radio provided a lifeline in at least two cases. In the first, a ham operator with a history of heart problems experienced symptoms of a heart attack, and was able to summon help for himself. In the second, a ham operator witnessed a neighbor who collapsed on his front porch. Although the area they were in had no cell or conventional phone service, he was able to call for emergency medical services and obtain treatment for the serious stroke that his neighbor was having. An added advantage in our area is the ability to follow storm spotter reports live, instead of sometimes waiting critical seconds or minutes for them to make it through the pipeline to Radio and TV (to the great credit of the National Weather Service and the media, it really is usually only tens of seconds before a report of a tornado results in an official warning)

There are a lot of resources available to help you get your license. This web page is a decent starting place. There are books available to help, including ones published by the ARRL and ones by Gordon West, and many amateur radio clubs offer classes. I recommend checking out the local club. You may find a really nice group of mentors.

The test for the entry-level (Technician) license is 35 multiple-choice questions, randomly selected from a pool of almost 400 questions. Many of these questions are similar, and the entire pool is publicly available, so you will never see a question on the exam that you have not had a chance to study.

In the U.S., license exams are administered by other hams, Volunteer Examiners. In most places, the fee to take the exam is about $15.

If you want to contribute to emergency communications and disaster recovery as an amateur radio operator, there are a lot more opportunities to train and participate, which I’ll cover in more depth in another post.

Get free SKYWARN training

The National Weather Service offers free SKYWARN training, and it’s several hours very well spent. You’ve probably heard terms like “wall cloud” “storm inflow”, and “mesocyclone” from weather forecasters. This training explains those terms, but even better, you learn the differences between a “plain” thunderstorm and one which may spawn tornadoes.

Take CERT training

Train to be a Community Emergency Response Team member. The training is free, and covers a lot of very useful information from how to use a fire extinguisher to how to prepare for participation in disaster recovery.

See whether your church or organization has a disaster relief team

If you are already a member of an organization, see whether they participate in disaster recovery. Many organizations such as the Southern Baptist Relief organization and others are members of VOAD – Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, and coordinate disaster response through that organization.

Take free FEMA courses

FEMA offers free online training in NIMS, the National Incident Management System, used in disaster response. These generally aren’t required in order to participate in disaster recovery at a local level, but these courses can help you understand the hierarchy and methods used by FEMA during a disaster response. I recommend starting with these courses: ICS-100.b, ICS-200.b, ICS-700.a, and ICS-700.b.

Talk to people who have been active in disasters

You can learn a lot by talking with other volunteers who have been active after disasters. When you get involved in organizations, you can learn a lot by asking questions and listening.

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Hams and the responsibility to educate

This is an open letter to all hams involved in disaster planning or recovery.

Now that things have settled down a bit after the recent disaster in Madison county, those who participated are beginning to compare notes and stories, write up as much as we can, and figure out what went well and what didn’t.

During the disaster, a lot of local hams served as communication resources for many volunteer organizations who helped during disaster recovery. It turns out that for a number of these organizations, one or more of the following was true:

  • Their operation depended on having operational computers
  • They had no backup power source capable of more than a few minutes runtime
  • Their operation depended on an internet connection
  • They had no one on staff who understood networking
  • They depended on outside consultants or service providers who were not available during the disaster
  • Their operation depended on equipment like battery operated forklifts with no alternate charging source

It turned out that in several cases, it ended up being the ham radio operator on site who had the deepest knowledge of computer and networking skills. In one case, even after the servers and workstations needed to provide aid were running on generators, nothing worked. No one realized that the networking switches, etc also had to be powered.

One way to really help agencies with this is to make sure that exercises inject situations which cause people to have to think this through. So during the next emergency planning or exercise, try this series of events.

The power went out.

The internet is down.

Cell phones are down.

Any phone lines provided by cable service are down.

And it’s going to stay that way for five days.

I promise you, this is not an unrealistic scenario. It just happened in an area containing a million people.

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How to prepare for your family for the next Disaster

I’ve written that my family was well prepared to survive with no power for a week.

There’s a mnemonic that someone taught me sometime during some disaster prep training. The fact that I can remember the mnemonic and not where I heard it means it’s a good one, I suppose.

YOYO 120

You’re on your own – for 120 hours. Five days. In a major disaster, this is how long it takes to get services to you. It could be longer. Shelter, food, water, waste. A gallon of water per day per person.

Count the people in your house. Now extend that – if your unprepared uncle or brother or mother or elderly neighbor needs help, can you take them in?

Here’s how we were prepared – Mostly it’s because we camp.


We still had our house. We do have tents, but I think it’s a bit unrealistic to think that they would have been useful if the house wasn’t inhabitable. In that case we would be without shelter until we received help or would use the skills of the four boy scouts (and ex-scouts) among us to figure something out.

Food and Cooking:

We have a propane camp stove, several individual backpacking stoves, a lantern, and fuel for them. We also had more than a week’s food in the pantry, a lot of which was not perishable. I was joking during our five days without power here that the worst thing that could happen is that we would have to start eating food we didn’t like. We had about 35 pounds of rice, which would have lasted a long time. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it much, but I was glad we had it. We cooked the food in the frig first, then the frozen food when it started to thaw. After that it was canned and dry food. We ate pretty well. And every day while the power was out, the cat brought a chipmunk into the house and released it alive. I’m not sure whether she was doing her part to provide food.

Unfortunately, she’s continued to do that.

Had we been limited to the cooking fuel we had on hand, we would have needed to be very conservative in its use. As it worked out, my ex-wife had a grill bottle of propane that she didn’t need because she had a natural gas stove, and we had a camping drip coffeemaker that would work on her stove. We swapped. Had the bottle in our gas grill not been empty, we would have had plenty of fuel. For camping, we have a propane “tree” and hose to connect the lantern and stove. It makes it really easy to use a big grill bottle. We were also glad to have spare mantles for the lantern. The ones on it were broken.


We never lost city water. But it would have been OK if we had. The morning after power went out, I mixed a little bit of bleach water and sanitized every container in our recycling bin. A teaspoon of bleach in a gallon of water will do it. I filled them with water, about 8 gallons in all. We were under a call to conserve, but it seemed a reasonable compromise, as we used almost none flushing toilets or bathing. I also turned off the circuit breakers for all the large appliances in the house – this has several benefits. First, it helps prevent a heavy load on the system when your neighborhood comes back on line. Second, it turns off your stove. If you left anything cooking on the stove, it could cause a fire when the power is turned back on. Third, it keeps the water heater from coming on in case you drain it while the power is off. Once the power was off, I turned off the valve at the water heater. This keeps the water in the water heater from going anywhere else. Your water heater holds 40 or 80 gallons of fresh water during an emergency. By opening the drain valve at the bottom and pulling the test lever on the pressure relief valve, you can drain out what you need. Beyond that, we have a couple of filtration pumps used for backpacking. These could keep us supplied with water for weeks, as long as there is water to be found anywhere. We happen to have a nonfunctional spa in our back yard that we just got and plan to install, and it had another 100 gallons or so of brackish water in it that could have been filtered.


In addition to the camp lantern we had some LED camping flashlights that worked great. a head mounted one is really handy for when you need both hands.


If you live where it’s cold, you need to figure this out. In this recent disaster, it wasn’t an issue for us, as the weather has been really nice. We do have a kerosene heater and 5 gallons of kerosene, which in Alabama can keep a room inhabitable for days.

Which brings us to Carbon Monoxide. Camp stoves, lanterns, candles, and kerosene heaters generate Carbon Monoxide, and it can kill you. Be sure to get adequate ventilation with outside air. That wasn’t a problem this time, as the doors were open most of the time.


Wait, what? A generator?

I own the generator mostly to support amateur radio activities, and used it after the power went out until the bad weather was over. I had enough fuel for us to run it for at least 2-3 hours each day, which allowed us to charge all our cell phones and amateur radio batteries. That was nice, as the cell phone system was working pretty well for SMS messages within a day, and for calls after about 3 days. I wouldn’t think a generator an essential item for post households, although we did hook up the DVD player and TV and watch movies on two nights while charging batteries. We lucked out. There have been times when I did not have much generator fuel, but this time my generator can was full, and the lawnmower can was almost full. In reality, there is no dedicated can of gas for the generator – I rotate them so the fuel remains fresh, but I try to always have a full can.

Car Fuel:

We had three vehicles at the house. Each of them had more than 1/2 tank of gas. I try to make sure they don’t get too low, because we live about 22 miles downwind of a nuclear power plant, and because for any number of reasons, I might need to take to the field to help with a weather event or disaster assistance.

So to recap, my order of things is:

Assess the situation. Open the frig quickly and make a mental inventory of what you have. Avoid frequent opening of the frig.

Collect what water you can.

Turn off major appliances at the breaker box

Turn off water to the water heater

Set up the cooking and lighting using camping equipment

Figure out how much fuel is on hand for each device and how many hours a day you can operate it

Decide whether to stay or evacuate (if you can)

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Another first-person account of the tornado event here

Here’s another first-person account of April 27th and after, with some really informative links to some weather resources about the event.

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Rescheduled: Ubuntu and Amateur (Ham) Radio for Ubuntu Open Week

Note that this was rescheduled due to me being busy with disaster recovery. We can talk about that, too if anyone is interested.

Please join us on Friday, May 6th at 14:00 UTC for:

Ubuntu and Amateur (Ham) Radio for Ubuntu Open Week

Steve Conklin AI4QR, and Kamal Mostafa KA6MAL

Curious about what you can do with Amateur Radio and Ubuntu?
Curious about Amateur Radio in general?

Steve and Kamal will take questions and do their best to answer them.


Amateur Radio is a hobby and a public service enjoyed by at least a million people around the world. Whether you are interested in transmitting and receiving radio signals around the world to meet new people, in being of service after disasters, or in the technical aspects, there is probably something for you.

Amateur Radio covers a huge number of interests, including local and long distance communications, emergency communications, satellite communications, digital networks, competitions, and electronics design.

Ubuntu offers many software applications related to Amateur Radio. We’ll discuss some of our favorite apps for use in the “ham shack”, and show how you can receive and decode digital conversations and telemetry with Ubuntu and any shortwave radio receiver (no Amateur Radio license required!).

We will be holding an open Question and Answer session:

When: Friday May 6th at 14:00 UTC

Where: In the #ubuntu-classroom and #ubuntu-classroom-chat channels on freenode IRC.

For more information about IRC:

Here’s a web client for IRC:

You don’t have to wait until the session to learn more about Ubuntu and Amateur Radio and meet other interested people. Check out our team information page or drop into #ubuntu-hams on freenode IRC.

73, DE AI4QR

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