A 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.
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.
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.
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.
The amateur radio SKYWARN net based in Fort Wayne will undergo slight changes, effective Feb 1, 2017. Formerly known as the IMO SKYWARN Quadrant Two Net, it will now be referred to as the Allen County SKYWARN Net. The net will continue, however, to accept and relay reports from spotters outside Allen County, including stations in places like DeKalb and Defiance County, which were not officially part of the former quadrant net’s responsibility. Continue reading →
A 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.”
In 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.
Trained storm spotters in the National Weather Service (NWS) SKYWARN program who are also licensed amateur (ham) radio operators should not assume they’ll be welcome on SKYWARN nets while traveling.
A Wichita Falls, Texas newspaper article republished this week on the “Emergency Management” magazine website reports that a local official of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is concerned that hams who are not members of the Wichita County ARES – especially hams who are storm chasers – try to check into the group’s SKYWARN net. The “Times Record News” report called such hams “intruders” who net control stations must “shoo” from their “closed radio frequency.” Such hams “are told they are welcome to listen — but not to talk,” the newspaper reports.
Here’s an audio recording of the exchange that prompted the newspaper story:
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 district emergency coordinators, who lead the program at a multi-county level.
The newspaper article quotes ARES district emergency coordinator Charlie Byars, W5GPO. This blog contacted Byars via email for more information about the situation in northern Texas. He confirms that during severe weather events, the W5US repeater system on which the local SKYWARN net operates becomes closed.
A repeater is a system commonly used by ham radio operators that receives a signal and re-transmits it, usually with higher power and from a better location, to provide greater communication range. Such equipment is often owned by clubs and sometimes by individuals. While the radio frequencies that repeaters use belong to the public, federal regulation 47 CFR 97.205(e) explicitly permits the owner of any repeater to limit its use to certain stations.
Byars explains that the W5US repeater is normally open to all hams, but its owners invoke 47 CFR 97.205(e) and close it to unauthorized users during severe weather events. But, Byars adds, that doesn’t prevent any ham from reporting severe weather. “We will take an emergency report from anyone, and refer the information to the NWS office,” he explains.
Beyond the transmission of an emergency report, however, the owners of the W5US repeater prohibit any use of the repeater during SKYWARN operations by anyone who is not a member of the local ARES group.
This blog contacted ARRL staff via email to learn whether the national organization offers guidance to leaders of its ARES program regarding the use of closed nets. The League’s April 23 reply appears in a separate post.
Fortunately for people like the Australian radio amateur who attempted to check into the Texas ARES net, the NWS office in Norman, Okla. – which serves that part of Texas. – welcomes “spotters, chasers and anyone else” to “submit storm reports at any time,” writes Rick Smith, KI5GT, the office’s warning coordination meteorologist. In an email to this blog, Smith suggests the following alternatives to ham radio, in order of office preference: Telephone, SpotterNetwork.org, a form on the office’s website and Twitter.
During the Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium, March 5, 2016 in Indianapolis, an attendee asked how spotters, particularly those who are hams, can report to appropriate National Weather Service (NWS) weather forecast offices (WFO) while traveling away from home.
There are several good answers to that question. It helps to know that each WFO has its own area of responsibility, which the NWS calls a county warning area (CWA). It is defined by a list of counties (or parishes) for which that WFO issues weather warnings. Generally speaking, every county in a given WFO’s CWA is closer to that WFO’s doppler radar station that to any other WFO’s radar. This is why CWAs often cross state lines.
If you want to make a spotter report while traveling, therefore, you need to know two things:
Which WFO’s CWA you’re in.
How to contact that WFO.
By far, the simplest way to accomplish both steps above is to register with SpotterNetwork.org and install compatible position-reporting software on a smartphone or similar GPS- and mobile- data-equipped mobile device.
In my case, RadarScope (when properly configured and activated) continually transmits my iPhone’s GPS coordinates to SpotterNetwork.org servers. If I need to make a report, I just log into my account on SpotterNetwork.org’s home page with any Web browser (including the one on my phone), and then select the “Submit Severe Report” link.
Because SpotterNetwork.org knows where I am, it displays at the top of the reporting page the three-letter identifier of the WFO whose CWA I’m in and the best telephone number through which to make a report to that WFO (in most cases, it’s the “bat phone” number that’s reserved for spotters). Then, I can call that number (the best choice for life-threatening situations, like a tornado) or enter my report into the SpotterNetwork.org website and let SpotterNetwork.org send it to the proper WFO electronically.
You can determine the appropriate WFO for any location in the country by using the NWS home page, www.weather.gov. Just click anywhere on the U.S. map. Near the top of the Web page that appears, you’ll see a headline that indicates the name of the WFO in whose CWA you clicked. If you scroll to the bottom of that page, you’ll find a phone number for that WFO. Unfortunately, it’s the main office phone number, not the special spotter report number. Depending on the time of day and how the WFO set up its phone system, you might not be able to reach a WFO staff member on that number.
Once you get on the appropriate WFO’s website, however, you should be able to easily find a weather reporting Web form, the WFO’s Twitter handle or even a link to the WFO’s Facebook page, all of which provide alternatives to calling.
If you don’t have mobile Internet, you can use weather.gov before your trip to make your own list of the WFOs through whose CWAs your route will take you.
You can call 911 to report life-threatening weather. The phone system will automatically route your call to an appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP) for your location, where a staff member will know how to relay your report to the appropriate WFO.
Disadvantages of this method include:
During times of severe weather, PSAPs are often too busy taking incoming calls to relay any information to the NWS.
The PSAP call taker might not appreciate being told about one-inch-diameter hail, even though the WFO would want to know about it.
Amateur (ham) radio
Learning how to make spotter reports via ham radio while out of your normal area can be challenging. You’ll have to determine which frequency is used by hams in your current location. Even if you’re successful, you might not be able to reach the WFO or someone who can relay your report to the WFO.
Some listings in the ARRL directory and on repeaterbook.com indicate that a listed repeater is used for weather-related activities. When that indication is available, such repeaters are good places for ham-radio-equipped spotters to start. You might, however, need to try multiple repeaters within range to find one on which a SKYWARN net operates. It’s therefore a good idea to communicate with local hams as you enter an area, so that you’ll already know about local on-air SKYWARN practices before you need to call in a report. This is especially important, because the local SKYWARN net might not permit participation by outsiders.
Call your home WFO
As a last resort, you can always use the “bat phone” number for your home WFO. Be sure to tell the call taker early in the call that you’re outside their CWA and that you’re requesting them to relay your report to the appropriate WFO.