Tag Archives: emergency communications

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.

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.”

Where ya’ from?

After a radiogram’s check, we transmit the place of origin, without introduction. This is almost always a city or town name, followed by a state or province. Immediately after the check we say the city name, and then say “I spell,” and then spell the city name phonetically (spelling can be omitted only if the city is well known and understood). Then we say the state name in full, even if it appears in the message as a two-letter abbreviation. For example, we say, “one five, Claypool, I spell, Charlie, Lima, alpha, Yankee, papa, Oscar, Oscar, Lima, Indiana.” We don’t say, “Place of origin, Claypool, I-N.” Next week: Time and date.

(This is the seventh in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)

Send a check

Every radiogram preamble has a “check.” The check is the number of word “groups” in the text of the message. We send the check one digit at a time, without introduction. For example, if the message text has 15 word groups, we say, “alpha bravo nine Zulu alpha, one five,” not “alpha bravo nine Zulu alpha, check one five,” and not “alpha bravo nine Zulu alpha, check fifteen.” Some messages contain ARRL numbered radiograms (an explanation of which is beyond the scope of this article). In that case, the letters “ARL” precede the check, like this: “A-R-L one five.” Note that this is one of those rare times when we do not use phonetics. Next week: Every message comes from somewhere.

(This is the sixth in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)

Station identification

Every radiogram has a station of origin; the call sign of the ham who first transmitted it on the radio. That means if another ham gives you a message via telephone and you transmit it on the radio, the radiogram’s station of origin is your call sign, not his. We transmit the station of origin phonetically, without introduction. For example, “number one five, routine, alpha bravo nine zulu alpha,” not “number one five, routine, station of origin A-B-9-Z-A,” and not “number one five, routine, amateur call alpha bravo nine zulu alpha.” Next week: How to send a check.
(This is the fifth in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.) 

Handle the handling instruction

ARRL Form FSD-218 defines seven possible handling instructions, each represented by one of the letters, A through G. Not every message has a handing instruction. When present, we send it after the precedence. We introduce it with the phonetics “hotel x-ray” and then we give the letter phonetically. For example, we say, “routine, hotel x-ray charlie,” not “routine, charlie.” When a number is involved, we say it one digit at a time. For example, “number one two, routine, hotel x-ray alpha five zero,” not “number one two, routine, A fifty.” Next week: Station of origin.
(This is the fourth in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)  

Stay In A Routine

After we transmit a radiogram’s message number, the precedence is next. “Precedence” is the word we use to describe how urgent a message is.  It also determines which messages get sent first.  Possibilities include “routine,” “welfare,” “priority” and “emergency.” Definitions of each appear in ARRL Form FSD-3.  Experienced traffic handlers know that the precedence always immediately follows the message number, so we don’t introduce it, we just say it.  For example, we don’t say, “number one five, precedence routine.”  We instead say, “number one five, routine.” Next week, we’ll cover handling instructions.
(This is the third in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.) 

What’s in a number?

A radiogram’s number is the first thing we send. If a receiving station has indicated, “ready to copy,” the next word out of our mouths should be “number.” Not “please copy,” not “message follows,” just “number.” It’s what experienced traffic handlers expect to hear. 
Next, we say the number itself, one digit at a time. So, if the message number is 12, say “number one two,” not “number twelve.” If the number is 131, we say “number one three one,” not “number one thirty-one” and not “number one hundred and thirty-one.” Finally, we say “zero,” not “oh” in numbers like 101.
(This is the second in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)

NTS traffic handlers can be so picky!

They want you to send everything in just the right order and just the right way. Why? Adhering to standard message transmission procedures helps ensure message accuracy, because the receiving station always knows what to expect, when and how. That’s why the NTS has very specific directions about exactly what you should say when you transmit a radiogram. That includes things like when to say “break” (and when not to), how to transmit an acronym, etc.

This is the first of a series of short columns on traffic handling that I’ve submitted to the weekly Kosciusko County, Ind. ARES newsletter. Kosciusko County Emergency Coordinator AB9ZA invited me to provide the information and I figured I could kill two birds with one stone and post the same article here!

Traffic Handling and Antique Engines

Have you ever been to a county fair or similar event and saw an area with guys sitting around running very old “hit-and-miss” engines? Today, those engines are anachronisms. But many people get enjoyment out of restoring them, running them and displaying them. Sometimes, I feel how those guys must feel when I’m handing traffic on ham radio, especially using Morse code.

There was a time, not too many decades ago, when the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) National Traffic System (NTS) served a real purpose on a day-to-day basis. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, people often hesitated to make long-distance telephone calls, because such calls were expensive. It wasn’t unusual for them to turn to their neighborhood ham radio operator to send a free radiogram for simple greeting messages, like “happy birthday.” The NTS was full of real messages being relayed on behalf of real people. And if a disaster stuck, citizens and government officials relied on NTS to fill in for incapacitated telephone and other communication systems.
Things sure are different today. Most people have telephone plans (either landline or cellular) that include long distance. Most have email, not to mention text messaging, Facebook and Twitter. There’s no longer incentive for the general public to use ham radio to wish someone a happy birthday. Even disasters don’t always create a big demand for ham radio. Many (if not most) local emergency managers are equipped with satellite phones that will put them in touch with the outside world even if landline telephone, cellular telephone and Internet services are unavailable. And it takes a pretty huge incident to disconnect the Internet. Not long after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, pictures of the scene were showing up on web pages and Twitter, provided by “citizen journalists.”
So, why do I invest my time practicing a craft that has little practical value except in the most dire of circumstances (e.g. something even bigger than the 2010 Haiti earthquake)? Well, I’ve never talked to one of those hit-and-miss engine hobbyists but I suspect I handle traffic for the same reason they keep their antique machines running.
It’s fun. I enjoy it.
There’s a certain order to traffic handling procedures that gives me comfort. Even if I’m relaying a “mail merge” radiogram addressed to some unsuspecting ham by someone who sent it only to provide “grist for the mill,” I get a feeling of accomplishment from keeping my skills honed. So, yeah, I realize I might never be pressed into service to handle real emergency traffic. But I know I can. And I enjoy the exercise. I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for participating (or not participating, as the case might be).