If you’ve been in meetings and exercises that simulate a total communications loss, you’ve likely wondered what you would do in the event of a catastrophic failure that takes down cellular, Internet, power, and even your own systems.
Haiti, Jan. 12, 2010. Within a few days after the quake, a team of amateur radio operators from WX4NHC at the National Hurricane Center was called upon to serve as the main source of medical communications. Over the next five weeks, the team manned a 24-hour net connecting Haiti field hospitals, the University of Miami Medical Center and the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, relaying on-the-spot medical advice from stateside doctors, relaying medical supplies, charter airplane flight schedules and helping coordinate emergency helicopter and fast boat evacuations.
In Joplin, Mo., May 22, 2011. The hospital, two local fire stations and the town took a direct hit by an F5 tornado. All normal communications were down for weeks. Regional amateur radio operators were called in to help establish communications.
Fortunately, in these scenarios, there have been established relationships between government agencies and groups of volunteer amateur radio operators who were on call, up to speed and equipped to help.
There have also been multiple examples nationwide of 911 centers losing radio communications with police, fire and ambulance because of accidental cable-cutting, cybercutting, or simple equipment failure. Local radio amateur group volunteers are called upon to help maintain communications until the normal operations resume.
Your Plan B: Amateur Radio Support
What are your plans for emergency backup communications in the event of a serious failure, or if you need to communicate outside of your normal working range? Think no cell, no Internet service, no power, or the need to set up communications in a remote area.
Georgia’s emergency management community is tackling this challenge in partnership with the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) nationwide Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) network: Here in Atlanta (and in counties around the state), groups of skilled volunteer radio operators are trained to respond to requests for backup support from local, state and federal agencies.
In my first year serving as Atlanta ARES emergency coordinator, we’ve made strides to ensure readiness. Our priorities are having a corps of volunteers who are well oriented and trained; building working relationships with emergency management agencies; ensuring that systems, technologies and protocols are in place; and participating in joint planning and drilling exercises.
Today, Atlanta ARES has a home base at the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, which dedicated space in its EOP for a permanent radio room and multiple rooftop antennas. Amateurs also operate from a radio room at the state operations center of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
In coordination with the Georgia Department of Public Health, radio amateurs man an all-volunteer network operating from 30 amateur-radio-equipped hospitals around the state. This includes the 16 regional coordinating hospitals that train monthly to ensure effective back-up communications in the event of an emergency or disaster.
The Atlanta ARES team also participates in regional, multi-agency tabletop exercises several times a year, and runs amateur radio net control operations for major civic events, including the annual Peachtree Road Race and Atlanta Marathon.
Amateur Radio, in Brief
Here in Georgia, ARES members are required to complete FEMA 100-, 200-, 700- and 800-level classwork, so they can understand how to work within the Incident Command System. To align with served agency needs, members are also working to become fluent in three digital communication formats that enable us to send and receive text, email and ICS-213 forms. We use specially developed software, such as Fldigi, and support amateur communications formats like Winlink, and D-RATS. Our Atlanta ARES group practices digital and voice operations weekly.
VHF radios are similar to public service radios and are used for local line-of-sight talk up to 5 miles, and up to 25 miles with the use of a repeater. Most radio operators have an HT (portable 5 watts) and many have a mobile radio with up to 70 watts. Data can be sent over VHF with the use of a computer and relatively low-cost interface unit.
D-STAR (Digital Smart Technologies for Amateur Radio) is the digital counterpart to VHF, incorporating digital voice and data. It has both HTs and mobile units that usually incorporate VHF analog. A computer is still needed to send digital data. Other digital radio standards are available: D-STAR is our preference, due to state- and region-wide adoption and support from GEMA.
HF (high frequency) is for talking throughout the state, regionally, and beyond. Data can be sent over HF with an interface and a computer. HF is propagation-dependent, so the signal will not be easily heard in some conditions. Also, because HF signals bounce off the ionosphere, a relay may be needed when direct communication to the intended station is not possible. For example, a message sent from Atlanta may need to be relayed through a Chicago station to be heard in Miami, and we can do this.
Unlike public service encrypted radios, amateur radio by FCC regulation may not use encryption of any kind. Anyone with a radio that can tune to the frequency being used can hear the voice part of the transmission. Digital amateur radios can only be decoded by other radios equipped to receive digital transmissions.
How to Engage With Us
You’ll find local amateur radio groups eager to connect and explore how they can help. Learn more about ARRL’s ARES group and how to contact your local emergency coordinator at arrl.org/ares. Contact your local radio club and ask if they have an ARES group and, if not, ask if they’d be willing to set one up. And rest assured that we know our role is supportive only:
Amateur radio operators will be stopped and turned away at building access points and on the road to emergencies, unless your security personnel have also been trained to recognize their identification and let them through. If you have requirements like background checks and TB tests for in-hospital sites, work with your local ARES group to get them handled. They’ll also need access to work with any installed gear to keep it operational and to keep their skills with that gear sharp.
ARES volunteers will go where they are needed with the gear they own, and do their best, but they may be limited by your systems. The essential first step is for your agency to install an outside permanent antenna. A robust VHF or wire HF antenna costs around $100 (plus the cost of coax cable), and goes a long way toward ensuring a reliable signal. A second step, which I’d urge you to consider, is investing in a fully operational radio station, which is a relatively small investment: you can set up a full HF and VHF radio station for about the same cost as two public service handheld transmitters.
If you believe there’s a possibility that you could have a total communications system failure, or be called upon to assist a fellow agency in need, consider bringing an amateur radio team on board. You’ll then have a group of easily integrated radio operators ready to support you.
Ken Reid is the ARES emergency coordinator, Atlanta; Net Manager of the Georgia Hospital HF Net; president of the Atlanta Radio Club; and a GEMA Certified Emergency Manager.