Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Amateur Radio Gets The Message Through

     Over at her blog, Tam relates observing a particularly new and specialized kind of holster-sniffer: a (possible ham) radio enthusiast with a DHS yen.

     While guys like that are sometimes encountered in ham radio, along with a gun-show level of OFWGism, there is one difference: some of those fellows with antenna-bristling cars are doing Good And Useful Work.

     Storm-spotting, for instance; about 50 percent of all Skywarn storm-spotters are amateur radio operators and in some place --Indiana, for instance -- well more than half of the information passed to the National Weather Service comes in via ham radio.

     The Feds have a whole volunteer organization of amateurs, signed up, trained and on-tap for Federally-declared emergencies.  In WW II, it took half a year (at least) from the wartime shut-down of ham radio to the formation of the War Emergency Radio Service, which provided communications for natural disasters and in support of Civil Defense efforts.  That seems a bit long, so the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service was formed in 1952, unfortunate acronym and all.

    For emergencies of less-than-WW II scope, a parallel organization set up and run by the U.S. and Canadian national ham clubs (ARRL and RAC, respectively) called ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) provides communication support.

     What do RACES and ARES do, exactly?  After all, police/fire/EMT services have their own radios these days, with local coverage every bit as good as any bunch of hobbyists, right?  Yep; but A) they're not the only game in town (a prominent example, check your local Red Cross building for antennas; they make extensive use of ham volunteers in emergencies);  B) there's a lot of admin traffic that normally uses the telephone or internet and while a lot of it may go by the wayside in an emergency, there's still plenty left; C) there are a great deal of "welfare" messages in and out of a disaster area; if there is telephone service, it is often overwhelmed and if there isn't -- in either case, there's ham radio, with yet another bunch of volunteers, who relay messages for the fun of it; outside of emergencies, they're by law about trivial matters only -- "Having a wonderful time, wish you were here" -- but after a hurricane or whatever, it may be the only way Great-Uncle Hank can tell you he's okay.

     Mind you, any of these organizations can be clique-y; no doubt some of the membership are outright, monomanical geeks.  But it's geekery in harness and when it is needed, it pulls its own weight.


John said...

Volunteering for public service communication used to be about volunteers communicating.

Now it's about mandatory certifications, background checks, ID badges, in effect becoming unpaid quasi-staff of the served agencies.

Took a lot of the fun out of it for me.



SJ said...

Random aside: I spent a few years attending school in a remote town in Michigan's UP.

Place used to be a bustliing mining area. Now the region is sparsely-settled.

There was a local Ham Club in town. Three quarters of the members were geeks from the University.

When someone's grandpa went missing in the woods, the Ham Club teamed up with several Off-Road-Vehicle clubs to scout the area. The Ham Club handled comms, and the off-roaders brought lots of local knowledge about the woods and trails.

All the members of the local Sheriff's Department (not much more than 10), plus the other local constabulary (5 to 10 City Police, a similar number of Campus Police) were happy to accept the help.

Anonymous said...

And on the fun side, 2m handhelds are popular with hang-glider and paraglider pilots who go cross-country. They're used for air-to-air and air-to-ground with the chase vehicle(s).

Stuart the Viking said...

When I was in the Marines, I spent 6mo at the Marine Air Base in Iwakuni Japan. We were able to send messages home for free via the local HAM radio club. If you saw just how expensive a phone call home was, you would understand what a great service that was for us. It was very much appreciated.


Dave H said...

There's something about getting a license from the Federal Government that turns some people into Judge Dredd.

What's fun is to listen to an amateur cop argue with an amateur lawyer. It's like reading Youtube comments, and about as information-free.

Brick said...

@Dave H - the same thing happens in the ham radio Yahoo groups. I wish there was a filter for the endless debates about which radios are legal to operate in which services. That filter would greatly improve the signal to noise ratio.

Chas Clifton said...

My little county's emergency-services director is setting up a ham network. I think she needs to see the Ham Sexy Dot Com site for her education!

But seriously, communications redundancy is a Good Thing. I have already seen in a big forest/structure fire how the whizbang 800 mhz radio system can be overloaded.

Another local peculiarity: the sheriff's dispatcher is called "Central."

Every time I press the button and call "[County name] Central," I see in my mind's eye a woman wearing a hair net plugging thick cables into a switchboard before she replies.

Aubrey Turner said...


Been hanging out on the Baofeng UV-5R Yahoo! Group, have you?


It certainly grows tiresome. Although in their defense, the number of newbies with this radio who know absolutely *nothing* about radio operations is mind-boggling and a bit scary.

Roberta X, lunching said...

In a hobby where you can legally design and build the radio you use on the air, it is hard to figure how any rig with a "clean" output could be prohibited. The unlicensed FRS is a different kettle of worms but I'd think you could program it for compliance and lock it down, at which point legality is more of an 11th Commandment thing.

Stranger said...

Actually, those newbies who "memorized the answers" almost invariably turn into enthusiastic traffic handlers, and excellent members of the ARS community.

Some of those newbies have taken two weeks off on their own dime to help out in a disaster. The Katrina stricken area had hundreds of out of region amateurs, many with calls issued in the 7th, 9th, and 10th(0) regions less than a year ago. Amateurs upgraded to extra, at that.

That community is like any other. 2% we can all do without, the other 98% are fine folks.


gator said...

If all goes well, I'll be upgrading from Tech to General this weekend.


Roberta X said...

Excellent, Gator -- best of luck and 73!

markm said...

There's also the MARS (Military Amateur/Auxiliary Radio System). I don't know what it's up to lately, but the 1964 Alaska earthquake, this was the channel by which my grandmother learned that my uncle in Anchorage was fine.

Crucis said...

I used to belong to my local county ARES. Unfortunately, it was so bogged down with local liberal politics that is was worthless.

Theoretically, it looked good on paper. The reality was that if a real emergency occurred, ARES could not be used due to insurance, liability and legal sanctions.

That turns out to be true in many locales across the country. SkyWarn is, on the other hand, used and useful.

Aubrey Turner said...

I think maybe my comments were taken wrong..

I have no problem with newbie hams, even if they've done the "ham cram." I know several people who have taken that path, mostly because they wanted to do RACES (or in my case, CERT) activities.

I was referring to people who buy certain inexpensive Chinese radios without any radio knowledge, then join the group and unknowingly start yet another flame war by asking how to program the radio to work on FRS. Every such question, even though innocently asked, results in yet another flood of pontifications from various armchair lawyers and wannabe radio police.