The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) works with governmental agencies such as our local or state Emergency Management agency, public safety agencies such as law enforcement or fire service, street, road and highway maintenance departments, etc. They also work Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), often referred to as Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) that include the American Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, Adventist Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Salvation Army, etc. Whether an ARES member serves a governmental or non- governmental agency he/she must be prepared to give the best communications support possible.
Meeting the communications needs of our partners is a challenging, and often daunting, proposition in today’s complex disaster/emergency relief arena. With the proliferation of relief organizations, increasingly sophisticated needs, all competing for that scarce resource — the volunteer — coupled with the emergence of other non-ARES amateur providers, it’s enough to make an ARES member’s head spin. As more of the population moves to disaster-prone areas, and less government funding is available, more pressure is consequently placed on agencies to appropriately use the volunteer sector for support of their missions in disaster mitigation.
Make sure that the leadership in partner agencies are aware of ARES capabilities and, perhaps most importantly, resource limitations. Let them know that ARES may have other obligations to fulfill. Operational issues involving message format, security of message transmission, disaster welfare inquiries, and other items should be reviewed and covered in the detailed local operations plans.
Public service communications performed by ARES members is based on a number of requirements. Specifically, continued open communications and cooperation. Our ability to contribute in times of disaster is based on the efficiency and effectiveness of our performance. Local radio amateurs also must demonstrate that they are organized, disciplined, and reliable and have a sincere interest in public service. The ARES leader must determine what our partner(s) need in the way of communications support. Based on their need you can decide, demonstrate/practice, and deploy the method that best meets those needs. This might entail voice communications short and long distance, data communications that provide the partner with a written record of communications transactions, and some partners may have need for video links if your team has the equipment and expertise. If the partner agency is requesting communications support that your team can’t provide or is prohibited by 47 CFR Part 97, be sure to explain that in a manner that follows the premise of “tell me what you can do, as opposed to what you can’t do.”
For an ARES team to be efficient and effective, the Emergency Coordinator needs to be competent and knowledgeable. The EC needs to understand and practice cooperation and collaboration with their partners. Being an effective communicator in writing and orally will go a long way towards gaining and maintaining meaningful relationships with the team’s partners. They must have regular contact with their partners in the disaster/emergency response organizations. By staying in contact the EC can effectively coordinate their team’s efforts to meet the needs of their partners.
During the first meeting with agency leadership, the EC needs to be well prepared and give a concise presentation on Amateur Radio’s capabilities. Illustrate accomplishments with:
- Newspaper clippings.
- QST articles, etc., highlighting Amateur Radio public service.
- Discuss the ARES group’s existing structure, emphasizing that a certain number of qualified operators will be able to respond to the agency/organization’s needs.
- Express your group’s willingness to meet the needs of the partner you are dealing with.
- Show a willingness to provide training to your membership.
- Offer leadership from the partner organization the opportunity to have their own representatives appear before your group and provide orientation and training they feel is essential.
Demonstrate the reliability and clarity of amateur equipment.
- Demonstrate that your team has good communications in the agency’s area of responsibility.
- Suggest specific ways in which amateurs can be of assistance and offer to demonstrate what you are capable of doing by supplying a demonstration of your communications capabilities.
- Demonstrate how easily amateurs and their equipment can interface with agency/organizational efforts. A perfect way to do this is to demonstrate equipment that can be made operational quickly inside the main office building, in a mobile command post, or in field units.
- It is important that you emphasize that the services supplied by your group may free their employees for other duties. It is also a cost-effective way to meet the needs of agency and the public it serves.
It is imperative that a detailed local ARES Communications Plan be developed with agency managers that:
- Define what each organization’s expectations are during a disaster operation.
- ARES and agency officials must work jointly to establish protocols.
- Make sure they know who the primary and secondary ARES leaders are in the geographical area.
- Matters involving recruitment, training and assignment of ARES volunteers are directed by him/her, in response to the needs assessed by the agency involved.
The purpose of developing a Communications Plan is very similar to having a meeting or travel itinerary. It allows us to see our progress; it shows if we have met our goal or arrived at the correct destination.
Be realistic and objective in terms of what your group promises to provide. Be fully prepared to keep all promises you make. An ARES leader should tell their partner(s) what they can do for them as well as services that ARES cannot provide. The leader and their team will look much better if they under promise and over deliver as opposed to over promising and under delivering.
Grass-roots action is the name of the game when it comes to achieving effective liaison. With the proper groundwork accomplished in advance, recognition among our partners having communications needs can be dramatically increased. Now that all the necessary introductions have been made, we need to continually stay in touch with our partners and insure that our ARES team members know what the expectations are and are given training to meet them.
The ARRL’s formal relationships with national partners are vitally important and valuable to radio amateurs. They provide us with the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the relief of suffering among our fellow human beings. Another substantial benefit not to be overlooked is that the relationships lend credibility for Amateur Radio’s public service capability, and that is important when it comes time to defend our frequencies and privileges before the FCC and Congress. Therefore, ARRL’s relationships with the emergency/disaster relief organizations need to be nurtured.
As an ARES leader you should also be working for growth in your ARES program, making it a stronger, more valuable resource and hence able to meet more of the partner’s needs. Leaders need to be innovative when looking for ways to build their team. Think of your ARES team as consisting of three parts:
- ARES Members
- Superstations, when needed. Hams at a superstation have excellent station equipment that allows
them to pick up weak signals and during times there are multiple stations calling on the same frequency known as pileups. They are also used to a quick pace and keeping contacts brief and concise. The nearest DX club would be a good source for volunteers for this group.
- Technical expertise. Your section’s Technical Specialist Coordinator may have volunteers who are willing to help during emergencies/disasters.
Make sure you have a plan for dealing with emergent volunteers. These are the hams who haven’t been involved with ARES, but step forward after an emergency or disaster occurs. Some may not meet your local Emergency Management Agency’s requirements, but there are tasks they can do for ARES, such as serving as a Net Control Station, relaying traffic between stations that cannot hear each other, or they may serve as a liaison to the local NTS net. A stronger ARES means a better ability to serve your community in times of need and a greater sense of pride for Amateur Radio by amateurs, partners, and the public. That’s good for all of us.
Working with the Public
Many radio amateurs want to be of help when the need arises but are unable to commit the time or meet the schedule required for formal participation with an agency or ARES group. These hams can still make valuable contributions to their communities by getting involved at the local level and making their skills available to their neighbors. Becoming a resource in your community can also enhance the public’s understanding of and appreciation for Amateur Radio and help reduce the potential for conflicts when a ham wants to erect an antenna on his property. The more we are recognized as neighborhood assets, the more likely it is that our antennas, which are essential for effective station performance, will be accepted.
How Do I Get Started?
Neighbors may band together in a variety of ways to help one another. Some have formal associations with a defined leadership structure. Law enforcement agencies often sponsor Neighborhood Watch programs, designed to deter local crime in residential areas. Many areas have implemented Community Emergency Response Team (“CERT”) programs, which teach basic skills — such as fire suppression, triage, first aid, and light search and rescue — needed to survive when a disaster swamps the resources of official first responders.
Find out what preparedness activities are going on in your area and join one or more local groups. Learn what plans are already in place and note the communication plan or absence thereof. Let the other participants know that you are a licensed Amateur Radio operator and want to help develop or improve the group’s communication resources. Community groups are usually eager to learn from people with knowledge and experience in the areas of concern to them. It’s also a good idea to take whatever local training is already offered in disaster preparedness so that your understanding will be at least equal to that of your neighbors and so that you can present your suggestions regarding communications in context with that understanding. Participation in local preparedness courses will also let you meet like-minded individuals with whom you can share ideas. If there is no preparedness group or program in your area, consider starting one using resources available from FEMA and other public sources.
Using FRS and GMRS Radios
The most popular and ubiquitous communication tools not dependent on the telephone system or the Internet are Family Radio Service (“FRS”) and General Mobile Radio Service (“GMRS”) radios.
FRS radios may be operated without a license. Transmitting with GMRS radios requires a license. The fee covers a 5-year term, and one license covers all the members of a family and as many separate radios as they may need. If you are going to use a GMRS radio, get the license!
Channel numbering can be a source of confusion for FRS and GMRS users because different manufacturers may assign a different number to a given frequency. Sometimes channel numbering will vary even among different models from the same manufacturer. If you are advising a neighborhood group on the use of FRS or GMRS radios, you can suggest one of the following:
- When equipping a group for the first time, have everyone buy one make and model of radio (or buy the same model in bulk for additional cost savings). This will assure consistent channel numbering.
- If different makes and models are already employed by group members, prepare a chart to go with each radio showing the channel number that goes with each frequency.
Every radio owner should be able to power his or her transceiver from standard alkaline batteries. Rechargeable NiCd, NiMH, or Li-Ion batteries are great for everyday use when AC power is available to recharge them, but recharging batteries when the power is out or when heavy use drains the batteries quickly can be a problem. Alkaline cells are inexpensive, can be replaced quickly, have a relatively long shelf life, and are usually kept on hand already for use in flashlights and other devices. If an FRS or GMRS radio needs a separate shell to use these disposable batteries, get one. If the alkaline batteries fit directly into the radio, keep some packed near (not in) the radio, and refresh the supply when necessary.
The limited range of FRS and GMRS radios is both good and bad news. The good news: the distance from which users may receive interference from other users is relatively small. The bad news: there may be parts of a desired coverage area that cannot be reached from a given location. You can suggest or organize a coverage-mapping exercise in which your neighbors test their radios from different locations, indoors and out, to identify any hot spots and dead spots. Find the places you can transmit with the most complete coverage and prepare to use relays for hard-to-reach areas if necessary. Knowing this before a disaster strikes will be most helpful, and it will get people used to using their radios.
During a disaster, time and radio resources may both be in short supply. People will be occupied with caring for their own families or performing their assigned team tasks. It benefits everyone to keep transmissions short and to minimize confusion over who is calling whom. Radio amateurs are familiar with good radio protocol and can teach it to their neighbors to promote efficient use of whatever radios are in use. Here are some basic practices to consider:
- Fire, police, and military radio operators make use of tactical call signs, usually associated with a specific function or location, and civilian groups can do the same. First names may be fine for only a few users but can lead to confusion with many users on the same channel. Descriptive tactical call signs such as “Utility One,” “Farmington Command,” or “Elm St, Fire” can reduce confusion in case another team is using the same channel nearby. Your group’s communications plan should include any tactical call signs you decide to use.
- It is good practice to start each transmission by stating the party you’re trying to reach followed by your own call (“Supply, this is Triage”). Wait for an acknowledgement (“Triage, Supply, go ahead”) before sending your message. Keep messages short (“Supply, Triage, we need six blankets at Elm and 1st right away”) and sign off when the exchange is finished (“Triage clear,” plus any required call sign) so the other party knows you’re finished and can get back to other responsibilities. Any identification requirement is easily met using this method.
- It is also good practice to use the proword “Over” at the end of each transmission to another station. Since most FRS and GMRS is simplex, doubles could occur, resulting in lost message content when it’s unclear whose turn it is to transmit.
- Speak — don’t yell — somewhat more slowly and distinctly than you would in face-to-face conversation. Yelling into an FM transceiver usually produces distortion rather than making one louder, the very opposite of what the user is trying to achieve.
- Speaking across rather than into the microphone will help reduce the popping of “P”s and the hissing of “S”s, producing clearer speech on the receiving end. Have your group practice with their radios and encourage honest “signal reports” so each user can make the most effective use of his or her radio.
- Avoid noisy locations when possible. Background noise makes it harder for you to hear and harder for you to be heard.
When people not accustomed to using radios practice these techniques, they are more likely to find their radios to be useful communication tools rather than distractions from their other duties.
Linking To the Outside
In addition to helping with neighborhood communications plans, radio amateurs may be called upon or expected to provide a link to adjacent areas or to first responders. You should be aware of the other amateurs in your area who are active in the local ARES group and know the frequencies on which you can reach them. They will probably be your best access to first responders and aid organizations if there is any access to be had.
You should set realistic expectations as to what you can accomplish. Surrounding areas may be experiencing the same problems you have locally. Fire department and law-enforcement agency communications will be very busy and will give priority to those groups with which they are familiar. You can learn more by getting to know the formal ARES groups in your area. Even if you don’t have time to participate with the local ARES group regularly, you need to find out where they are likely to be stationed and how you can contact them. For example, if you know which hospitals will have ham coverage and the best way to reach them, you may be able to determine whether a given facility is functioning in a disaster so that a seriously injured person can be transported there.
Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT)
The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program educates people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations. Using training learned in the classroom and during exercises, CERT members can assist others in their neighborhood or workplace following an event when professional responders are not immediately available to help. CERT members also are encouraged to support emergency response agencies by taking a more active role in emergency preparedness projects in their community.
The basic CERT trainings include: * IS-317: Introduction to CERTs and the CERT Basic Training Course:
“Introduction to Community Emergency Response Teams,” IS-317, is an independent study course that serves as an introduction to CERT for those wanting to complete training or as a refresher for current team members. It has topics that include an introduction to CERT, fire safety, hazardous material and terrorist incidents, disaster medical operations, and search and rescue. It takes between 6 and 8 hours to complete the course. Those who successfully finish it will receive a certificate of completion. IS-317 can be taken by anyone interested in CERT. However, to become a CERT volunteer, one must complete the classroom training offered by a local government agency such as the emergency management agency, fire, or police department. If your home area has the program, you can contact your local emergency manager to learn about the local education and training opportunities available to you. Let this person know about your interest in taking CERT training.