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09/07/2005 Archived Entry: "More on ham radio and emergency communications"

MORE ON HAM RADIO AND EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS. After the recent blog entry on emergency communications, a number of ham operators shared their experiences and insights. They sent everything from personal tales to news links about hams helping save victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Although a lot of us tend to think of ham as old-fashioned or totally geeky, in the aftermath of disaster it's still often the only reliable communication. And it can reach worldwide.

One correspondent, DG, found a ton of links. He also investigated rumors that someone in the Caribbean was jamming emergency communications. These turned out to be unsubstantiated. Jamming is possible, but it's becoming harder to do and easier to trace. (UPDATE: For serious radio-teck folk, DG just sent this article on defeating the comm jammers.)

With permission, I'm posting these correspondents' info (either verbatim or lightly edited and sans identifying detail) below. Gulchers, gulch-wannabes, and people looking for the ultimate tool to add to the complete preparedness kit, read on.

DG writes of his own first unexpected plunge into dealing with an emergency:

I got my first ham license when I was 14, back in 1975. I could only use morse code then. I didn't have a license that had voice privleges and couldn't aford the more expensive radio equipment anyway. I still remember my first contact to a fellow in Nebraska using a wire antenna that was just laying in my driveway. I was in Indiana. It was about 7:00 on a weekday morning. I remember I had to end the QSO (short signal code for conversation/contact) to run off to school.

After moving to Alaska I participated in the Iditarod sled dog race as a volunteer ham radio operator. We set up and operated portable radio stations up and down the trail (1049 miles) over 28 checkpoints and relayed race information and logistics back to Anchorage.

In 1980, the race was marred by tragedy that shocked Alaska and shook Europe. Two days before Joe May reached Nome in first place, on a beautiful and calm morning, a Cessna 185 carrying three members of a Spanish television film crew and piloted by Alaskan aviator, Ace Dodson, suddenly fell to the ground. All four were killed instantly.

They were over the trail filming some mushers when the plane suddenly dove into the ground. It went in with a slight bank. I remember when the film crew and pilot were removed, they found one of the camera neck straps around one of the control yokes. It is though that this could have been a cause of the crash. No mechanical problems were found.

I was 19 years old.

The bush phone system operated by Alascom was down so I was the one who had to notify authorities. In the meantime, a bunch of the natives went down with snow machines and sleds and recovered the bodies. It was a touchy situation because Anchorage was using a few unlicensed persons in a third-party capacity (perfectly legal) to ease up the need for so many licensed operators to be there. So the first thing I had to do was request a control operator. I knew that wasn't going to be taken well, as a number of the trail operators had been complaining about the lack of abilities of some of the Anchorage people in handling important and trail critical info. Suprisingly, a ham I knew took the mic in Anchroage and I quickly and clearly explained the situation, without repeats. We knew there were news people monitoring our net and using the info for stories. The trail committee was very concerned about bad image information being distributed through our network. Things went really well and I even received an informal comendation from my ham buddies for the way I handled myself and the situation.

There have been other emergencies that I have helped handle message traffic with, earthquakes, volcanos, hurricanes and in the midwest tornados. It can be very stressful work, but there is a lot of information avaiable through local ham groups and through the Amatuer Radio Relay League.


DP writes about his less dramatic, but useful, learning experiences:

I had a bunch of experience with ham radio in my teens. The ARRL had regular meetings where the main thing they did was practice emergency response. No idea if they still do that, but they were always really informative to attend. If you can find one (check for a local ham radio club), attending would be well worth the afternoon you'd spend.

One of the best of them that I was at was held in a field that was biking distance from my parents' farm, and the day started off beautiful. Clear blue skies, sunshine, birds singing and all that. About noon things clouded up, and within an hour we were getting clobbered by a thunderstorm. About half the guys there got a quick lesson in how well (or poorly) their radios worked when wet, and I spent a while being the designated tarp repair-man. I started by helping to set up the shelters, and then when one would blow over in the wind, I was the go-to guy on getting it back up before the electronics got soaked. I also was the guy who got to run around and top-off the generators.

In all, it was a pretty enlightening experience for a geeky teenager.

If you can't find such a gathering locally, contact the local Boy Scout troop, and ask who's gotten their radio merit badge. That kid will have all the leads you could want and a bunch of useful knowledge.


Now the news from SLH about ham radio, (lack of) privacy, and alternatives:

I have a ham license, but am not an active ham largely for privacy reasons. I got the license and VHF (2 meter) equipment mainly for emergency communication purposes.

There are some major loss-of-privacy implications to obtaining a ham radio license:

As for unlicensed use of the ham bands, it is illegal, and the hams police their bands (especially true of VHF repeaters). Violaters are turned in to the FCC for enforcement. Whether this would be true in a SHTF scenario, I rather doubt, especially if the transmission is of an emergency nature. I believe non-hams can use the ham bands in a life-threatening emergency.

You might want to look into other radio services which do not require a license: CB, and FRS/GMRS. (Actually GMRS is supposed to require a license, but as far as I know, this is not enforced. J.J Luna has a chapter on this in the revised edition of "How To Be Invisible.") However, these radio bands do have limitations, primarily on range. And CB has a lot of idiots using it.

And on the water, you can use a marine VHF radio, I believe without a license, but only on water (which might include the city of New Orleans at this time).

Ham radio, if you really want to get into it, is very much a "culture" with its own customs and jargon. I would suggest that anyone wanting to become a ham do a lot of reading at the ARRL and QRZ (and other ham) websites. And maybe purchase a VHF scanner and listen in on the bands. Attending a hamfest (essentially a ham radio flea market) would also be educational.


JT writes about both the usefulness and potential co-option of ham technology

My radio experience started shortly after the big attack in NY. At that time the baseball championships were scheduled to play in Phoenix. I was paranoid so went and bought a handheld radio. My primary intention was to monitor police and fire frequencies in the case of any "problems" and bugout before the general populace could be clued in.

What I discovered was how easy it is to become a licensed operator. So, wondering why the gubermint has control of the air around me, I applied and achieved an operators license. Radio has been an enjoyable addition to my repertoire of skills. Now located "somewhere in central america" it is a means to keep in touch with others not only "back home" but around the globe (and with my wife who is also a ham operator).

The world of ham radio has many facets, one of which is emergency communications. The Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations are usually affiliated with a group of ham operators that provide communications during emergencies. These groups are volunteers who spend long hours and provide their own equipment to assist.

Of course, cellphones have almost replaced these radio operators. [NOTE FROM CLAIRE: True, but as we saw in Katrina, when the cell towers go down, ham radio still has a place.)

I haven't looked around the ham sites but I would expect that there were many ham operators working the Katrina disaster. Albeit in the background and not normally visible to TV cameras.

The main issue I see with this arrangement is that these volunteer groups of radio operators are by and large co-opted by the gubermint droids and thus removed from actually helping victims. Instead, they are used as primary or backup communications to direct the gubes effort to control the situation.

So, like say, fresh water, or food, communications is something that has to be doled out according to some faceless bureaucrat in an air-conditioned "command" center.

Beyond all that, the biggest drawback to wireless communications is the ability for anyone to listen. Prevented by the rules from using encryption, we have no way to offer secure point to point communications (people don't seem to realize this is also true of cellphones, just a fancier consumer grade "radio"). This makes radios less than desirable for "private" uses other than maybe some tactical short range purpose. For this you have the FRS/GMRS radios available cheaply and without license requirements. (I'll bet that you already have a set of these and realize their utility)

Posted by Claire @ 08:41 AM CST

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