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Most ECOM activities in North America seem to place Amateur Radio in the background. In other words, the radio amateur plays the roll of emergency management volunteer with the access to radio communications being a value-added feature. Disasters in which Amateur Radio must step-in and fill a void left by a failed public safety or government telecommunications system are very rare. Most of us will spend a lifetime in Amateur Radio and never encounter an environment in which our services are necessary in this critical roll.
The nature of modern ECOM work is such that many radio amateurs assume they are well prepared when they participate in a local exercise, enjoy field day, and provide support for the occasional minor emergency, foot race, or similar event. While there is no doubt such activities provided worthwhile training; such activities can create a false sense of preparedness. Few of us really ask “am I properly trained and equipped to provide an efficient service in the event of a major disaster?” Worse yet, some have come to believe real ECOM capabilities are no longer needed.
Recent news coverage of the catastrophe in Japan has once again created the impression that the Internet is the ECOM “hero” of the day. Numerous articles have appeared on television news programs featuring the use of Skype, e-mail, and similar Internet services to connect families in North America with their loved ones in Japan. Undoubtedly, the average citizen assumes the Internet has survived the disaster just fine while overlooking the fact that nearly every example involves individuals far outside the actual disaster area.
In reality, a major earthquake, Tsunami, or similar devastating event would disrupt numerous “modern” telecommunications systems. It would also create a wide range of problematic challenges for the ECOM volunteer.
Many radio amateurs assume they are well prepared when they have a portable generator to operate their equipment in the field. However, many Americans in the Eastern States discovered that access to gasoline was problematic during the “great blackout” of August, 2003. Without electricity, gasoline pumps at the corner garage do not work. Gasoline becomes a rather valuable commodity in a very short time.
A disaster plan should take into account shortages of gasoline and a temporary regulatory regime, which implements the rationing of gasoline. Amateur Radio will be rather far back in line behind government agencies, NGOs, hospitals, utilities, and other essential services, all of which will be demanding access to scarce fuel supplies.
The ability to operate with low power, renewable energy resources, and methods which minimize fuel requirements are preferable. For example, using a generator to periodically charge a bank of float cells used to operate a ten or twenty watt CW transceiver may conserve far more fuel that running a generator continuously to power a 100-watt SSB transceiver and computer.
Most volunteer activities will require transportation. However, for the aforementioned reasons, gasoline may prove to be a scarce commodity. ECOM volunteers should make it a habit to keep the gasoline tank in their automobile half full. This is particularly true in areas where disaster can strike without warning, such as locations on an earthquake fault. Other disasters provide a bit of warning, such as potential tornado outbreaks or major winter storms, allowing one to fill up the tank and perhaps store some additional gasoline for a portable generator.
It’s a tall order to keep a tank half full under current economic conditions. However, by filling up when the tank reaches half, one can also ease the “cash flow” problems felt when one has to fill an entire tank to the tune of 70-dollars!
Many disasters will also disrupt roads and highways. Bridges can collapse, road beds can be washed out, and debris such as downed utility poles can make a road impassable. Therefore, one may want to ask “how do I provide communications from a location I can not reach by automobile?” What happens if you must walk a mile to get to a location requiring communications support? Consider these points:
Are you in shape to do so? Amateur Radio is a sedentary hobby and it shows. Many radio amateurs are not in shape to walk up a couple flights of stairs, let alone walking a couple of miles over difficult terrain.
Do you have transportable equipment? Can you place a VHF-FM transceiver, a couple of gel-cells, a power supply and some antenna equipment in a backpack and transport them into the field?
Can you provide support in the field to disaster teams operating outside of “HT range?” The wide coverage repeater you rely on may not be there in time of emergency, requiring one to access a distant repeater. How would you communicate? Consider portable repeaters, cross-band repeat, or a simple VHF or HF back-pack arrangement, which provides higher power output while transporting a larger gel-cell battery.
Types of Communications:
The local canoe marathon or foot race demands primarily tactical communications. However, what happens when one must transmit and receive real message traffic of genuine importance. Are you really equipped to transmit and receive a message on behalf of a public safety official? What happens when you are the individual responsible for conveying a message requesting a quantity of critical medications or personnel? Is it enough just to “say” I want this or that into the microphone?
Real disasters require solid, consistent communications skills, standardized procedures, and a universal message format. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply misguided.
“Real” ECOM work can range from filling in a communications gap for first responders to setting up a message center for your neighborhood. For example, could you set up a station in your front yard and originate health and welfare messages for your neighborhood residents via a NTS net? The vast majority of radio amateurs are simply incapable of doing so efficiently.
Ask these questions:
Am I familiar with the radiogram format? Can I format and transmit a radiogram without using the familiar message blanks?
Am I familiar with the standard ITU (ICAO) phonetic alphabet and the procedures spelling difficult words? What happens when I must report a release of “1, 2-Dichloroethane” or report an outbreak of an unusual disease while insuring there is absolutely no confusion at the delivery end?
Can I originate a message that includes all of the service data so that the recipient knows on whose authority the message originated, when the message originated, and from where the message originated?
Are we really prepared?
Many ECOM volunteers seek out a special ID card or seek to feel a bit important by associating public safety officials. Some are well trained in HAZMAT awareness, NIMS, and ICS. Others walk around with government issued 800-mHz police radios. Yet, many of these men and women are NOT prepared to provide a real communications service.
As radio amateurs, we should be communicators first. The ability to convey information through multiple networks in a consistent, accurate, and efficient manner should be our primary skill set. The ability to establish survivable, effective radio communications from within a disaster area should be our primary capability.
If one chooses to be a reserve police officer, SAR specialist, or DAT volunteer, so much the better. However, such status does not make one a communications specialist. Only training and equipment designed to solve communications problems will fulfill that role.
Take some time today to give some thought to your ability to operate in the event of “the big one.” Ask yourself if you and your family are really prepared.
73, Jim, WB8SIW