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.