When the going gets tough, hams get going

Reprinted from Urgent Communcations at http://urgentcomm.com/disaster-response/when-going-gets-tough-hams-get-going

When the going gets tough, hams get going

Mar. 19, 2013
Merrill Douglas | Urgent Communications

A handheld radio, portable antennas, extra batteries and cables, a soldering iron, clean clothes, snack bars and a length of rope.

That’s some of what you’ll find in a “go-bag.” And if you’re one of the many amateur-radio operators who volunteer during local emergencies, you always keep a go-bag packed. When disaster strikes, you grab it and rush to a Red Cross shelter, an emergency operations center (EOC) or some other activity hub to do what you do best — get messages through, despite all sorts of obstacles.

They don’t often get a lot of publicity, but amateur-radio operators — or “hams” — play an important role in emergency response.

“They’re a prime example of a grassroots effort,” said Keith Robertory, manager of disaster response emergency communications at the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. “They live where the disaster occurs, and they already have the equipment, the knowledge of the location and knowledge of how the disaster would impact that location. So they’re immediately there and can start doing work.”

Hams often swing into action well before a storm or other event causes havoc on the ground. During hurricane season in the Caribbean, for instance, hams in that region keep their eyes on the weather out their windows, said David Sumner, chief executive officer (CEO) of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in Newington, Conn. They use their radios to call in observations to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

As the storm passes, it might knock out power and damage antennas, “so they rig another antenna, start up the generator, and they’re back in business,” Sumner said

When hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms, earthquakes, tornadoes or other forces of nature cause widespread damage, hams get to work wherever they’re needed. In some cases, they transmit messages to take the place of two-way radio or phone systems that have been rendered inoperable in the aftermath of a disaster.

For instance, as Superstorm Sandy overwhelmed parts of the northeastern U.S. last October, some hams assisted regional hospital systems that had lost the ability to communicate among their buildings, Robertory said.

“Somebody would go to them and say, ‘We need this message passed to this building,'” he said. “They would get on the radio, call the amateur-radio operator in that other building, and give them the message.” The second operator then carried the message to the recipient.

Amateur-radio operators also help individuals contact family members, help the Red Cross conduct damage assessments and help get shelters established, Robertory said. For instance, people in a shelter might want to register on the Red Cross’s “Safe and Well” system to let family and friends know that they’re okay, but the shelter might not have power or Internet access at the time.

“An amateur-radio operator can call an amateur-radio operator somewhere else who has Internet access and relay information to put into a missing-persons database,” Robertory said.

Even when other networks are operating, ham operators take some of the load off those communications systems when traffic gets heavy.

Quick response

In the aftermath of Sandy, volunteers with the Greater Bridgeport Amateur Radio Club in Connecticut handled messages for three evacuation centers housing about 800 local residents.

“They were ready to take calls and dispatch people,” said Dana Borgman, press information officer for Region 2 of Connecticut Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), a volunteer organization. “The messages could be about supplies, logistics — any kind of reports.”

Public-safety communications networks in Bridgeport were operating at the time, Borgman said. Ham radios supplemented those channels. But, if the phone system in a shelter stopped working, hams could step into the void.

“If someone in a shelter needed to make a request, they could call someone at a different point, such as the EOC,” Borgman said. “They’d establish communication and say, ‘I have a request from the shelter manager. We need 200 cots and more fresh water.'” An operator at the other end would relay the request to the appropriate person.

Members of ARRL’s New York City-Long Island section provided similar aid after Sandy. At the time, Jim Mezey — now manager of that section — held the emergency coordinator’s post. Because he lives in Nassau County on Long Island, he focused most of his attention there.

“I did a lot of traveling,” he said. “I was without power for a while, so I used my mobile station to do most of my work. I also moved to the county EOC and worked with the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES)” — another volunteer group. For the most part, however, section members provided services to the Red Cross.

Finding enough manpower during the emergency became a bit tricky, because many of the radio volunteers from Long Island live on the hard-hit South Shore, Mezey said.

“They had their own problems with floods and losing power,” he said. “Their batteries lasted only so long, and that was it. No gasoline, no way to get around.”

Of course, for volunteers whose homes were flooded, taking care of their own families took top priority, he said.

Amateur clubs can swing into action quickly because they maintain ongoing partnerships with myriad emergency-response organizations. The ARRL has developed memoranda of understanding with 13 national organizations, such as the American Red Cross, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the Salvation Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many operators also take advantage of training opportunities.

“A lot of the amateur-radio operators are now becoming CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members,” said Borgman. “Also, we encourage our members to take all of the ICS (Incident Command System) training.”

ICS training teaches operators about the structure of incident command and how to use standard terminology, rather than terms specific to police, firefighters, radio operators or other specialists.

Beyond delivering messages, hams offer a lot of miscellaneous technical assistance, some of which is quite ingenious, Robertory said.

“They like to ‘MacGyver’ things,” he said. “You’ll hear a lot of amateur-radio people say, ‘Give me a car battery, an antenna and a radio and I can communicate from anywhere.'”

In times of disaster, hams tend to be extremely flexible, Robertory said.

“In the morning, they’ll set up an antenna and start communicating,” he said. “They’ll set up a satellite dish for us, and then they’ll set up a computer. They’ll troubleshoot a printer, and then they’ll teach someone how to use the fax machine.”

Clearly, when the going gets tough, it’s great to have someone on hand with a go-bag, a radio — and the attitude of a ham.

Another tool in the tool box

The AIDF 2012 panel I was on generated the report: “Another tool in the toolbox.”  The report shares a series of outcomes.

  • Approach new technologies with cautious enthusiasm.
  • Partnerships involve giving too, not just taking.
  • If we agree to share, we can achieve more and save money.
  • Social media is a valuable source of information. Let’s take advantage of it.
  • Let’s innovate together.
  • Education trumps limitation.
  • Always be in preparedness mode.

The panel provided different view points because we were all at different points in technology with unique perspectives.  It was a pleasure to be on this panel and I look forward to next year at AIDF.

FedEx and Red Cross shoot done by Good.

Here is a video about how the Red Cross and FedEx work together to respond to help those in need.  It was produced by a crew from Good that was a lot of fun to work with. It is always enjoyable to share how we are driven by our passion to help. It is a common trait with all the Red Cross people I have worked along side.

The original video is posted at http://www.good.is/app/webroot/biztopia/#.  Click on FedEx at the bottom, then on the 2nd truck.

Peer-to-peer, wireless network could help in disasters

An interview I did originally posted at http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9219561/Peer_to_peer_wireless_network_could_help_in_disasters,
and http://www.cio.com/article/688745/Peer_to_Peer_Wireless_Network_Could_Help_in_Disasters

Peer-to-peer, wireless network could help in disasters

LifeNet open-source software would link devices via Wi-Fi, professor says

Matt Hamblen
August 29, 2011 (Computerworld)

With a recent earthquake and devastation from Hurricane Irene, many cell phone users on the East Coast experienced clogged networks that made wireless calling difficult. Continue reading Peer-to-peer, wireless network could help in disasters

Red Cross comm team ready for disasters

An interview that I did and is posted originally at http://www.networkworld.com/news/2011/082911-red-cross-comm-team-ready-250197.html?page=1
and http://www.cio.com/article/688730/Red_Cross_Comm_Team_Ready_for_Disasters

Red Cross comm team ready for disasters

IT system’s design is based on experience from years of disaster experience, says Red Cross IT exec

By Matt Hamblen, Computerworld
August 29, 2011 01:34 PM ET
While most businesses back up data and records as potential disasters approach, the American Red Cross has a communications and information systems infrastructure built to bring key data into areas ravaged by storms like Hurricane Irene . Continue reading Red Cross comm team ready for disasters

Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

An interview I did with ComputerWorld that is posted at http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9219556/Irene_takes_out_cell_towers_disrupts_communications
 and http://www.cio.com/article/688722/Irene_Takes_Out_Cell_Towers_Disrupts_Communications

 

 

Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

Storm affects 1,400 cell sites, FCC reports

By Matt Hamblen
August 29, 2011 12:12 PM ET
Computerworld – Communications
networks took a hit from Hurricane Irene, as 1,400 cell towers and cell sites were damaged or disrupted — mainly in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, the Federal Communications Commission said Monday. Continue reading Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

Fox News Interview, March 18, 2011

I was interviewed by Garrett Tenney of Fox News for a story about cell phone use in disasters.  The story was published on March 18, 2010 at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/03/18/memorizing-cell-phone-numbers-save-times-crisis/.  It is reprinted here.

Memorizing Cell Phone Numbers Could Save You in Times of Crisis

By Garrett Tenney
Published March 18, 2011 | FoxNews.com

Many Americans feel naked or lost without their cell phones. 

But in times of crisis those very devices — instead of connecting people — can sometimes lead to collapses in communications.

One reason: who memorizes cell phones numbers anymore? 

A week after Japan’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake, there are still more than 10,000 people unaccounted for. 

Philippe Stoll, a spokesman for the International Red Cross, told the BBC earlier this week that people are still alive, but can’t tell anyone because cell phones that were not swept away by flooding waters quickly ran out of power. 

“I don’t know how many of the phone numbers saved on your mobile phone you know by heart,” Stoll said. “How do you reach someone whose number you have in the mobile you lost?”

In tech-savvy Japan, cell phones are widely used by young and old, as opposed to the U.S., where they are predominantly utilized by just the younger generation, said Ken Wisnefski, founder and CEO of Webimax.com. 

“In Japan, even the older generation was reliant on technology, for some time, so the impact of this crisis is more far reaching because a large part of the population relied so heavily on that technology,” said Wisnefski. 

A study released earlier this month by Research and Markets, the world’s largest market research firm, revealed that of Japan’s population of roughly 127 million, 117 million are mobile subscribers and 90 percent of those users have access to a high speed 3G network. 

Communication in and out of Japan has begun to improve, and some wireless carriers, such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Comcast have been offering free calling to Japan from the U.S. 

But, in some of the hardest hit areas, communication with the outside world and emergency responders is still difficult. 

Keith Robertory, manager of disaster services technology with the American Red Cross, said this is a reminder to everyone to be prepared in the event of a disaster. 

He said people can take these few, simple steps to help improve communication and get you on the path of personal recovery:

–Save all your contacts on your home computer, update them every few months, and print a hardcopy of your contacts to keep in your car in case of an emergency. 

–Write down the toll-free numbers for your banks and utility companies. In the event of a disaster, this will allow you to turn off your utilities, reprint credit cards, and temporarily change your address. 

–Designate a friend or family member who lives outside your area to be your family’s emergency contact. In emergency situations, long-distance calls have a better chance of getting through jammed phone lines because they only require one connection to get through, while local calls require two connections. 

–If you are in a disaster area, and aren’t able to get a hold of family or friends on your phone, change your voicemail to say the current time, your location, and that you are safe. This will allow anyone trying to reach you to know you’re alive and where rescuers can find you. 

Robertory said communication in crisis situations is vital for families and communities. Although preparation is a personal decision, families should make plans to handle disasters, he said.

Satellite 2011 Conference Interview

This interview is reposted from the Satellite 2011 Conference page.

An Inside Look with Keith Robertory, American Red Cross

Conference Chairman Scott Chase sat down with Keith Robertory, Disaster Services Technology Manager, American Red Cross, to discuss the relationship between government agencies and the satellite industry when a disaster strikes. You can hear more from Keith Robertory and other experts at Satellites to the Rescue on Tuesday, March 15

Scott Chase: In the event of an emergency situation of any type, how effective is coordination of government and industry satellite resources, and how does that all work?

Keith Robertory: Coordination of shared resources is going to be very important. Many organizations have satellite technology positioned as the emergency solution when terrestrial services do not work. If all these organizations pull out their satellite equipment during a disaster and try to use it, the limitations of shared bandwidth abruptly smack these organizations with reality. The satellite industry needs to work with its clients to better educate them on potential limitations. 

Offers of donated satellite systems and air time are welcome at any time. That said, the worst time to engage a response organization with an offer of new equipment, new technology, and limitations unknown to them is right after a disaster occurs. The priority of key decision makers will be the response effort. Effective government and industry coordination occurs long before the emergency situation ever arises.

SC: What applications do satellites bring to support the communications requirements of users in remote locations during and after the disaster?

KR: The American Red Cross satellite infrastructure has the IP packet as a common foundation. We are not trying to push different modes and protocols through the equipment. IP allows the core network to handle the information at a very basic level, reducing the number of conversions between the source and the destination. It can be data packets, voice or video, but it is all based on the basic IP packet. The trick to be successful in disasters is to make technology transparent. 

SC: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the use of satellite technology and equipment over the course of your own quarter-century in the high-tech arena?

KR: Satellite technology is becoming more and more commonplace. Imagine a couple decades ago telling someone that we’re going to send a radio signal to their car from tens of thousands of miles away. Small transceivers used to only exist in the realm of science fiction. It doesn’t seem that long ago that connectivity between computers was about as fast as you could read plain text. Now we are streaming HD video, video teleconferences, and entire site connectivity through a single satellite connection using equipment that is (relatively) easily shipped from site to site.

On the flip side, technology advances and shifts in philosophies are bringing previous “obsolete” concepts back to the mainstream. Many people consider cloud computing to be a new technology, but it isn’t. We used to call it mainframes and terminals. The current events in Egypt show that no matter how advanced the technology, technologists need to be ready to fall back to older methods to establish connectivity. Egypt is an example of how to communicate should a nationwide network be disrupted. Disaster technologists should be versed in many different tools.

SC: What would you say has been the biggest advance in satellite capability since you joined the American Red Cross nearly 15 years ago?

KR: Honestly, we have not made many substantial changes to the American Red Cross satellite system since it went live in 2000. Standing up a system of the size we have is a costly endeavor and major changes also cost more money. We’re in the maintenance mode of the IT life-cycle. We are going to keep the system running as long as possible because a poor economy is not the time to request a multi-million dollar upgrade that may not have a measureable direct impact on the mission to deliver disaster relief services to disaster survivors. 

Our system has grown to have two downlink stations and nearly 80 remotes in the field, including 12 satellite trucks. It is a completely internal system behind and protected by our corporate IT systems. The only thing we don’t own is the satellite itself. What has changed is how we use satellite capability and the philosophy behind technology selection. 

Consider that all the technology we have is a tool in a tool box. We are first and foremost a service delivery organization.  My unit’s objective is to establish connectivity in a disaster zone. We need to leverage everything in the most mission-sensible way to balance cost with service delivery. Technology that doesn’t enhance service delivery isn’t used.  The situation drives technology needs. As there is less and less local infrastructure, the selected tools shift to satellite-based technologies. 
Terrestrial technology, like cellular, is giving satellite a good run for its money. Cellular is getting faster, cheaper, and more resilient to disasters then it has been in the past. Satellite is also getting faster and cheaper. The decision point between where we can expect cellular to work and when to shift to satellite is in constant motion. Both are getting better but one will never replace the other for disaster work. Use the right tool for the right job. There is no single magic bullet idea.

SC: What can the global satellite industry do better to facilitate emergency response and humanitarian efforts at the scene of major disasters of any type?

KR: The satellite industry must reach out to humanitarian and other response organizations long before disaster occurs. It is challenging to fit a new connectivity solution into an existing network that is activity being used to respond to a catastrophe somewhere. And I say “catastrophe” because it seems to take the huge disaster to get lots of companies off the bench and in the game. Taking satellite technology to an organization responding to disaster is similar to telling a freighter that you’re going to change its propellers while it is navigating a horrendous storm in the North Atlantic.

Haiti was a time when this was successfully done, and that is an exception. Haiti was the largest response of the International Federation of the Red Cross. The technology that is normally sufficient for a disaster was quickly out-scaled and couldn’t keep up with demand. Luckily, the American Red Cross domestic response team’s experience with satellite was able to screen and facilitate the offers of satellite service on behalf of the international response team who could not shift attention off the response.

SC: In your role as supervisor of literally hundreds of volunteers, many of whom may have never seen, for example, a satellite phone, what is the one thing the satellite industry could do now to simplify emergency response?

KR: A larger diagram on the satellite phone to tell them to use it outside would be a good start. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Any device that is stored “for emergency use only” will not be successful in an emergency without a lot of training. In my experience, even that can be questionable. The best “in case of emergency” device is one that a user uses every day and is resilient to disasters. The American Red Cross actually uses fewer satellite phones then you probably think. Amateur radio plays a vital role in the first couple days of a disaster, and cellular is coming back online after that. Satellite phones are used in pocket areas where we have few other working options.

It is fair to say that all the technology deployed to an American Red Cross disaster response is received, set up, managed, troubleshot, packed up and shipped back by volunteers. I’m blessed with a cadre of high caliber volunteers who can use technology and speak human. We’re the high-tech in a human-touch organization. My technical volunteers in the field are the support system for the volunteers in the field that directly touch the clients. A key to our success is a step-by-step job aid for every action that needs to be done. These range from wiring a laptop to setting up a full VSAT. As long as a new volunteer is willing to be flexible and follow directions, we can put them to use in American Red Cross Disaster Services Technology with minimal upfront training.  Our more experienced volunteers can get more deployment and training opportunities.

The short answer comes back to simplifying the technology to be more reliable, set up quickly with less user intervention, and require less hands-on to keep it running.

Join Keith for Satellites to the Rescue: Industry and Government Partnership in Disaster Relief, 4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15, Room 207A. Access to the session is included with your Full Conference registration.