Monday, October 29, 2012

When the phones don't work: How to use amateur radio in emergencies - a short guide for non-ham's.

I've just spent the last few days producing gray hair over both my sons - one lives in the path of hurricane Sandy and the other was just outside of the tsunami evacuation zone this weekend in Honolulu.  Last year during hurricane Irene I lost contact with one son for several days.  So this subject is pretty dear to me - when TSHTF your family and friends will make themselves insane wondering if you are okay.  

You see I am an amateur radio operator so it all seems simple to me but even my close family members are somewhat confused about what to do when the phones don't work.  The simplest answer and what you really need to know can be summed up like this:

Go to the red cross shelter nearest you and ask to talk to an amateur radio operator.  Hams are nearly always attached to shelters and pass information between the various emergency agencies and authorities.  The "ham" will take a message from you and it will be passed outside of the disaster zone and relayed from one operator to another until it is delivered.  Messages are normally delivered in a few hours but, the process can sometimes take a day or two so do this as soon as you are able to safely get to a shelter.  If a shelter isn't an option - ask an emergency responder  or just look for a large antenna array in your neighborhood and knock on the door. 


The long answer:  "Hams" pass messages out of disaster or emergency zones in a couple of ways.  Most generally it's in the form of a "Radiogram".  The operator you talk to will take down information on who to deliver the message to and the specific message text.  He will pass it verbatim either via voice or one of several digital methods on to other operators.  Sometimes via a formal structure called a "net" or possibly just ham to ham.  

Nets are a regular, scheduled, time and frequency that hams agree to meet on.  There are nets specifically for emergencies - like the hurricane net that runs whenever there is an active storm.  It's major purpose is to pass weather observations to the national hurricane center from within the storm track (As the storm moves they tend to knock out phones, power, internet and even satellite communication so amateur radio becomes the only reliable method).  

There are nets for maritime travelers - many boats rely on maritime nets for weather forecasts and report trouble or request assistance on these nets.  There are also emergency nets in almost every state and county in the nation, and of course there are nets for the discussion of everything from politics to certain brands and models of radios. Your message to the folks back home will likely be passed via at least one of these nets.  It will be passed from ham to ham until someone in your area receives it and either calls the recipient on the phone or delivers it in person.  

In the absence of an active net an operator may simply call for other operators in, or close to the message destination to help.  99.9% of amateur radio operators consider this pretty much the highest calling of the hobby and will not only gladly accept the responsibility of handling the message but may go to great lengths and even personal expense to be sure it's delivered.

Passing messages is only one facet of what we do.  During a time of regional or national emergency there will be a more formal assembly and deployment of radio amateurs - for example the fires in Colorado this past summer saw hundreds of hams donating their time, skill, and equipment to aid the firefighters and keep the public safe.  Hams provided services ranging from passing supply and evacuee information from shelter to shelter all the way to live video of fire lines and direct weather telemetry.  

As radio amateurs we practice with drills, nets, and even an entire weekend every spring in which we purposely run our stations on emergency power and make contacts all over the world.  Yes we are a little "touched" as my grandmother would say but we truly love our hobby - not just for the gadgets, which is rewarding and fun enough but for the chance that we may be able to do something in a time when others need our help.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being in a disaster zone and having no communication - remember: Red Cross shelter, emergency personnel, or look for that big antenna.  

For more general information on amateur radio please visit the American Radio Relay League.

Posted via email from ninjahippie's (pre) posterous