Amateur radio operators, also known as ham operators, can provide an extra layer of communication during emergencies. Two volunteer organizations and local government entities illustrate precisely how private-public amateur radio partnerships serve as a means to an end for public safety.
Rick Bunn is the Amateur Radio Emergency Services coordinator for the city of Alexandria, Va. He works with volunteers from the Alexandria Radio Club and Alexandria ARES chapter to provide disaster management services during the times when all else fails.
ARES consists of licensed amateurs who have registered their qualifications and equipment with local ARES leadership for emergency communications duty in the public service. In the United States, the effort is organized and sponsored by the American Radio Relay League. Every licensed amateur, regardless of membership in ARRL or any other local or national organization, is eligible to apply for membership in ARES.
Alexandria, a suburb of Washington D.C., has a population of about 150,000. Bunn has been the local ARES coordinator for 10 years and describes local HAM operators’ role as supplemental, but necessary.
“As the city’s radio systems have become more robust, our need to supplement their communications has decreased; but we still train and practice,” he said. He noted the group has a signed memorandum of agreement with the city to set ground rules and ensure it is in compliance with federal laws.
Large-scale public events means there’s a need for the service. According to Bunn, his group has a presence at the Marine Corps Marathon, Washington’s Birthday Parade and airport disaster drills every third year at Reagan National Airport and Dulles Airport.
Preparation is key, so Bunn’s fellow operators make a point of bringing their “A” game. “Yearly, we participate in a nationwide drill called ‘Field Day’ where we operate out of a field using temporary antennas and no commercial power. This is to simulate a disaster that takes out our permanently installed infrastructure — think Katrina,” he said.
Participants work with the state emergency management agency, local government, Red Cross, local hospitals and other organizations that are in need of communication services. Fortunately, according to Bunn, real emergencies are “few and far between.”
But when they are needed, they more than prove their value. Hurricane Isabel is a recent example of an event during which Bunn and his team provided long-distance communications around the affected area and to the state emergency management in Richmond.
“In the late ‘90s we supported Red Cross with long-distance communications when hurricanes hit the U.S. Virgin Islands,” he said. “Due to conditions, we made contact with St. Croix via Perth, Australia.”
Perhaps the most high-adrenaline case happened during the 9-11 attacks, when ARES mobilized to support the local hospital, Red Cross and first responders at the Pentagon and then returned to support recovery efforts at the Pentagon.
None of that would not be possible without an intentional approach to public service. Bunn attributes his group’s success to four factors: continuous engagement, ability to quickly adapt to changes in agency operations, professionalism and demonstrated ability to provide what agencies request.
Jim Duram echoed Bunn’s statement. A ham radio operator and Muskegon County emergency coordinator, he added that operators offer a unique capability during times of disaster.
“Volunteers support and own their own equipment,” he noted. “They’re pretty much self-contained.”
Muskegon County Emergency Communication Services Inc. is comprised of licensed Ham radio operators who have expressed an interest in providing emergency communication. MCECS’s primary mission is providing communication support in times of local emergencies, disasters, severe weather events and for the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. It also provides communication support to nonprofit organizations for walkathons, bicycle races and other charitable events. The western Michigan county has a population of about 172,000.
Duram said constant training is necessary as “not every event is going to be the same.” Operators need to constantly adjust to new situations. Unpredictable weather is one that hits home as the county experiences weather patterns that develop over Lake Michigan.
Volunteers do their best to keep their cool and get the job done. Annual events like the ARRL Field Day help operators maintain and sharpen their skills. ARRL is the national association for Amateur Radio in the U.S., and its Field Day is the most popular on-the-air event held annually in the U.S. and Canada. On the fourth weekend of June, more than 35,000 radio amateurs gather with their clubs, groups or simply with friends to operate from remote locations. As the ARRL describes it, “Field Day is part educational event, part operating event, part public relations event.”
Beyond formal training, there’s no substitute for rapport. That means forging relationships with local public safety professionals, Duram said.
“The last thing you want is to have a volunteer show up at the scene and no one knows the individual,” he said.
Other soft skills include a willingness to help one’s fellow man and to get the right message through to the right agency.
In addition to volunteer support, the organization depends on private donations to continue its work. A 501c3 nonprofit, this status allows MCECS to receive grants and donations, with a taxable deduction available to donors in the U.S.