Category Archives: emergency communications

Still no way to get messages to Puerto Rico, even as new hams arrive

Ham radio operator wearing Amateur Radio Emergency Service safety vestA group of 50 volunteer amateur (ham) radio operators from the U.S. mainland are on their way to Puerto Rico, to provide much-needed communications at Red Cross shelters there. But even after they arrive and set up, there still will probably be no way to get messages to the island.

The mission of the ham radio operators that the American Radio Relay League (ARRL, the national association for amateur radio) is deploying will be to send information from the island, according to an email message from ARRL staff member Steve Ewald. Specifically, they’ll send information about the welfare of survivors, so worried family members on the mainland will finally know their loved ones are OK.

But no one will contact those families directly.

As the survivor data reaches the mainland, other volunteers will enter it into the Red Cross “Safe and Well” database, where family members around the world will be able to access it via the web.

So, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, the only resource for worried family members remains checking the Safe and Well web site. If a Puerto Rico resident is not listed, family members can only check again the next day, and the next. After newly deployed hams get in place and start sending survivor data off the island, the number of survivors listed on that website should grow quickly.

Advice for worried families after hurricanes and other disasters

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico
NASA satellite image of Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico

I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a loved one on an island that’s struck by a major hurricane. The worry must be terrible.

Because I’m an amateur (ham) radio operator, I have received requests from strangers who are desperate for help getting welfare inquiries through to places like Dominica and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck.

Based on my years of experience in emergency response (including disaster response) and emergency communications. I have some words for such people that I hope will be helpful.

First, it’s important to remember that absence of communication does not mean that your loved one has been harmed. In most cases it means only that the disaster’s survivors temporarily have no way to tell you that they’re OK. So, as hard as it might be, maintain hope.

In the absence of other means of communication, one of the few things a distant family can do is search the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” website.

Second, in the absence of other means of communication, one of the few things a distant family can do is search the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” website. For a number of reasons, that’s an imperfect answer, but it’s often the only option. The site does not allow families to send inquiries into affected areas. It does, however, allow them to see if a survivor has added himself or herself to the “safe and well” list. Of course, survivors can do so only if a.) they have access to the internet and b.) they know about the website.

In many cases, ham radio operators like myself are present in disaster-struck areas. It’s logical to believe that a ham outside the disaster area can help people learn if their loved ones are safe. There are some important things, however, that such people might not realize.

Any hams who lived through the disaster (e.g. hurricane landfall) must first deal with the immediate needs of their own households before they can be of help to others. This includes obtaining necessary medical care, shelter, food, etc. Depending on the intensity of the disaster, this could take considerable time.

Likewise, a hurricane can destroy the external antennas a ham needs to communicate with the outside world. Assuming the ham has the necessary materials, he or she can build a temporary antenna, but this can also take time.

Ham radio equipment requires electricity. As I write this, the entire island of Puerto Rico is without commercial power. Except for solar or wind-powered systems, the only electricity available is coming from privately owned generators (typically fueled by gasoline). Any ham who lives on the island and doesn’t have such a power source is off the air (or will be, after batteries die). And hams who have generators can operate their radios only as long as the generators’ fuel lasts. Finding fuel could be a challenge, with roadways blocked by trees and gasoline stations lacking power for pumps.

Now, let’s assume for a moment that there are hams on Puerto Rico whose homes and antennas survived the storm, whose families need no assistance and who have plenty of emergency electricity. It still might not be possible for these hams to receive inquiries from worried families on the U.S. mainland. Why? I’m sorry to say, that they might well have more important things to do with their radios.

In such disasters, ham radio operators are often busy for a time passing emergency and other urgent messages. An ambulance is needed here. A rescue team is needed there. Supplies are needed at that shelter. Such messages can completely occupy local hams for days after a disaster. They have no choice but to reject incoming welfare inquiries until all the emergency and urgent communication is handled.

Next, ham radio channels become busy with outgoing welfare messages. That’s what I was hearing on the radio today. Hams I heard in Puerto Rico were completely tied up sending messages off the island for their neighbors. It was one message after another, without a break for inquiries to flow to the island.

Eventually, the local hams will catch up and be able to accept incoming messages. Just as eventually, telephone and internet service will become available to survivors.

In the interim, difficult as it is, worried families need patience and hope.

Reports of Maria’s devastation on Dominica arrive via ham radio

Check out this recording of amateur (ham) radio operator Frans van Santbrink (J69DS) in St. Lucia relaying reports from fellow hams on the island of Dominica as the eye of Hurricane Maria strikes.

This VOIP Hurricane net is a hybrid, radio/internet service for which I volunteer as a net control station (i.e. conference call moderator). It’s main mission is to relay such reports to the U.S. National Hurricane Center to aid in the development of forecasts and warnings.

 

ARRL HQ: No guidance on closed ARES nets

ARRL logoA staff member of the American Radio Relay League, the United States’ largest organization of amateur (ham) radio operators, says he is not aware of any “ARRL guidance to restrict participation in a net.”

Sean Kutzko, KX9X, media and public relations manager, responded April 23 to an inquiry this blog made of the League’s emergency preparedness manager April 12. I asked the questions below after learning of a newspaper article about a Texas Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) net turning away a licensed amateur. ARES is a program of the ARRL.

  • Does the ARRL provide guidance to its ARES leaders regarding the restriction of participation in ARES nets (i.e. the operation of “closed” nets during which only certain amateurs are permitted to transmit)?
  • If so, what guidance does the ARRL provide on this matter?
  • Under what circumstances (if any) should a local ARES net be closed to all outsiders?
  • What legal authority (if any) does an ARES net control station have to bar any licensed amateur from checking in and/or participating?
  • By barring certain amateurs from participating, does an ARES net risk interfering with a licensed amateur’s ability to transmit an emergency message in violation of 97.101(c)?

Below is the verbatim response from the League’s PR guy:

“One of the cardinal rules of all facets of Amateur Radio is “listen, listen, listen.” If Amateurs can provide data of _legitimate_ value to a weather net that is responding to a weather situation, they should be able to do so.  That said, if an Amateur has nothing to contribute to such a net, the Amateur should remain silent to allow legitimate traffic to be passed.

“I’m not of aware of any ARRL guidance to restrict participation in a net. Amateurs should listen to the net control station for guidance on what information is needed, and remain silent if they cannot provide information that fulfills the requested need. Net control stations should listen to the request being made of participating stations, as bona fide emergency traffic takes priority and can come from anyone.”

Texas ARES official bans closed nets

North Texas ARRL section Twitter logoA high-level Texas official of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) has created a policy that bars ARES groups under his purview from prohibiting the participation of any licensed amateur radio operator in their ARES nets.

As this blog explained in an earlier post, ARES is a program of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national organization of ham radio operators. Regional, elected ARRL section managers appoint ARES leaders within their sections, including section emergency coordinators (SEC), who lead the program at a section level and district emergency coordinators (DEC), who lead it at a multi-county level.

Matthew Morris, K5ICR is SEC for the ARRL North Texas section, which is made up of dozens of counties, including Wichita County. As SEC, Morris has authority to create policy for all ARES organizations in his section.

When contacted by this blog via email, Morris wrote, “I’m not sure it was so much a revision of policy but just that we codified into policy what’s been a long-standing best practice for ARES.”

The newly codified policy includes two parts; a definitions section and the section below:

Section 1.02 Closed Nets Prohibited

(a) All ARES nets shall be open for participation by any licensed amateur. No net control station or ARES leadership acting in an official capacity shall prohibit the good faith participation of any licensed amateur.

(b) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the establishment of minimum reporting criteria by a net control station or ARES leadership as appropriate to the situation at hand, so long as these criteria are not established intentionally or knowingly to prevent the participation of an amateur or group of amateurs.

Morris promulgated the policy after an article in a Texas newspaper described the Wichita County ARES net shooing off an amateur radio operator who attempted to check into the group’s severe weather net. On an audio recording of the net, one can hear net controller Jerry R. Stanford, KD5INN tell Australian storm chaser Daniel Shaw, VK2FSRV, “I do not want to hear you transmit on this frequency. We have a closed net.”

In a subsequent email to this blog, Charlie Byars, the DEC responsible for Wichita County (who the newspaper article quoted), confirmed that the Wichita County ARES did not permit outsiders to participate in its net, except to transmit emergency reports. It accomplished this by declaring the W5US repeater — on which the net operates — to be closed, with the blessing of the repeater’s owners. A closed repeater is one that only stations authorized by the repeater owner may use.

The North Texas section’s new policy prohibits the practice of conducting an ARES net on a closed repeater. The SEC has no authority, however, over storm spotter nets that are not affiliated with the ARES.

This blog sent email April 19 to the trustee of the Wichita Falls repeater that the Wichita County storm spotters use to ask, “Will the W5US repeater comply during future severe weather nets and end its policy of becoming a closed repeater during such nets?” If the trustee responds, I’ll update this article accordingly.

It is interesting to note that one day after Morris issued the section’s new ARES net policy, the Facebook page of the Wichita County ARES changed. The page title changed to “Wichita County SKYWARN” and the profile picture changed from the ARES logo to the SKYWARN logo. That same day, Justin Reed, NV8Q reported on a storm chaser Web forum that “As of today the Wichita County ARES group has renamed themselves to Wichita County Skywarn in order to get around the ‘open net’ requirement. So nothing has really changed here.”

Today, this blog reached out again to Byars via email, who replied, “As far as I know we are still ARES, and will stay that way.” Later the same day, the group’s Facebook page changed again. Its title became “Wichita County ARES / Skywarn” and its profile picture became the the ARES and SKYWARN logos side-by-side.

This blog congratulates Morris on his prompt action to implement best practices in section policy and encourages all ARRL sections to enact similar policies, if they do not already exist.

The editor of this blog leads a SKYWARN ham radio net in Indiana. A future post will discuss how that net operates and why all licensed radio amateurs are welcome and encouraged to participate fully in it.

Audio: Texas ARES NCS rejects Australian storm chaser

Yaesu FT-8900 dual-band amateur radio transceiver tuned to 146.94 MHz and 147.255 MHzIn an earlier blog post, I reported that the owners of a Texas ham radio repeater prohibit use of the system by licensed amateur radio operators who are not members of the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) group when an ARES storm spotter net is in session.

My blog post was based on a newspaper article about the net shooing off a ham who wanted to check in.

Below is an audio clip of an exchange between Australian storm chaser Daniel Shaw, VK2FSRV and net control station operator Jerry R. Stanford, KD5INN. Listen and decide for yourself what you think of this exchange. I welcome your comments, especially regarding whether your local SKYWARN net prohibits check-ins by outsiders and why or why not.

Excellent EmComm tips from St. Louis Metro ARES/RACES

ARES LogoThe St. Louis (Mo.) ARES/RACES organization published some excellent tips for ham radio operators who are involved in emergency communications and/or public service events. You can read the entire thing on their website and below are a few of my favorites, with some of my own comments.

Things to avoid saying on the air, Number 1

“Okay, I’ll do it. But it’s not actually my job. The guy who’s supposed to do that is always away from the table doing something else.” The other operator doesn’t want to hear any of that and it ties up the frequency. Make a note of your complaints in your log and bring them up at the debriefing, but keep them off the air.

From Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

This is so true. An addition problem caused by such transmissions is the damage to ham radio’s image caused when representatives of served agencies and/or members of the general public overhear such comments through the radios of nearby operators. Even though we are amateur radio operators, we must always behave professionally on the air, especially when involved in public service.

The value of tactical call signs

Tactical call signs such as “Shelter 5”, “Net Control”, and “EOC” are descriptive and give immediate information. They can be very useful during planned events and during emergencies. Do not, however, forget to include your FCC call sign at ten minutes intervals and at the end of each contact.

From Various experienced operators

Just a bit of clarification here: During a public service event or emergency communications operation, a contact, QSO or (as the FCC Part 97.119  puts it) “communication” that lasts more than 10 minutes should be exceedingly rare! This means that if your FCC call sign is the last thing you say at the end of your last transmission during each contact , you should almost never have to worry about the 10-minute rule.

Never alter a message

Do not alter a message, even to correct a typographical error. What you think is right may actually be wrong. Moreover, any change you make might subtly alter the meaning of the message. Send or write it exactly as you receive it.

From Introduction to Emergency Communication course book

During public safety events, EmComm exercises and even NTS traffic nets, I’ve been amazed at how often I’ve heard this advice ignored. Even when relaying tactical messages (“Shelter one needs more cots”) verbatim transmissions are essential.

As a continuation of that thought, it’s equally important for radio operators to refrain from attempting to interpret messages. In other words, If the other operator requests clarification, I should not tell him what I think the served agency representative meant. I should instead relay the request for clarification to the representative and then relay his or her response.

 

  • Keep it brief
    Air time is precious, especially when there are numerous operators on the same frequency. Refrain from overexplaining things, engaging in personal greetings and chats, and anything else that might prevent important traffic from getting through.

    From Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

  • Are you following procedures?
    Operating procedures are developed from many hours of examining what went wrong during disasters. Familiarize yourself with the procedures and practice them in exercises. Arriving at a disaster scene and trying to freestyle it will only cause problems.

    From Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

These two tips reminded me of an operating procedure that many operators on EmComm nets don’t seem to know (based on what I hear): During a directed net, the only thing you need to say when calling the net control station (NCS) is your own call sign, once.

“Net Control, this is Aid Station Bravo” uses about twice as much air time as “Aid Station Bravo.”

During a directed net, we are not usually permitted to call anyone without first calling the NCS. The NCS operator knows this. Therefore, if I transmit my call sign and nothing else, the NCS will assume I’m calling him!

Likewise, a sharp NCS operator will answer such a call by transmitting only the call sign of the station that just called, not his own call sign! It should sound like this:

Aid station: “Aid Station Bravo”

NCS: “Aid Station Bravo.”

Aid station: “I have traffic for Logistics.”

NCS: “Logistics.”

Logistics: “Logistics.”

NCS: “Call Aid Station Bravo for traffic.”

Logistics: “Aid Station Bravo, Logistics.”  (here, both call signs are appropriate, but notice the absence of the unnecessary “this is” before “Logistics.”)

I hope you find these thoughts helpful. I welcome you to add your comments, using the link above (below the post title) and to share a link to this post using the convenient buttons below.