Wednesday, December 10, 2008

EmComm, Brian Daly, WB7OML, week 29

Amateur Radio Emergency Communications, or “Emcomm”
Brian Daly, WB7OML

Let’s start out by defining - what is a communication emergency? According to the definition in the ARRL Level 1 course, a communication emergency exists when a critical communication failure puts the public at risk.

What are some circumstances that can overload or damage critical day-to-day communication systems?
  • Storm knocks down telephone lines or radio towers
  • A massive increase in the use of a communication system that causes it to be come overloaded
  • Failure of a key component in a system
  • Earthquake
  • Volcano

What are some potential Communications Emergencies in Seattle?

Can a communication emergency occur in “normal” circumstances? Yes, definitely, some examples being:
  • Underground cables being dug up
  • Fires in telephone equipment buildings
  • Car crash knocks down a key telephone pole
  • 9-1-1 systems can fail
  • Hospital systems can fail

So what makes a good emcomm volunteer? Amateur emcomm volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds with a range of skills and experience. Emcomm volunteers share one common characteristic – the desire to help others without personal gain, the ability to work as a member of a team, and to take direction from others. An emergency situation will bring a lot of stress and pressure, thus an emcomm volunteer needs the ability to think and act quickly.

Where do you fit in? We amateurs bring equipment, skills, and frequencies necessary to create emergency communications networks under poor conditions. We have licenses; we have pre-authorization for national and inter-national communication. Many of the skills we bring to emcomm are the same things we do on a day-to-day basis; other skills are specific to emcomm and needs to be learned through courses like the ARRL ARECC Level 1 and through drills and exercises.

Radio equipment, frequencies and basic radio skills are not enough. Without specific emergency communication skills, you can easily become part of the problem.

It is also important to know your limits of responsibility as an emergency communicator. What an emcomm volunteer is not - we need to know where to draw the line, what our limitations are. We are not “first responders”, generally we do not have authority – we don’t make decisions for our served agencies, nor do we place demands on them. But we can make some decisions – the decision on whether to participate or not, and decisions affecting your own life and safety. In general we are not in charge – we are there to fulfill the needs of the served agency.

You cannot “do it all”. If the served agency runs short of specialized help, it is not your job to fill it especially if you are not trained for the job. But you can fill in an urgent need or perform jobs where communication is an integral part, if you are qualified.

And remember, leave your ego at the door!

There are differences between “day-to-day” communication and “emergency communication”. First and foremost, in day-to-day communications there is no real pressure to “get the message through”. No one’s life depends on it. You do things at your leisure. Emcomm can involve both amateurs and non-amateurs, it happens in real-time, there is a lot going on simultaneously perhaps on several nets, there may be little or no warning, you may have to set up and be operational anywhere in a short period of time, and there is no schedule. Public service events may come close to emcomm, as they can be “planned disasters” – about the only know piece is the schedule!

Your job as an emcomm volunteers is simple – communicating is job #1. Notice it is “communicating” and not “amateur radio” – there is a significant difference. Our job is to get the message through regardless of how that happens. We as amateurs have many tools available for this job, and amateur radio is just one of those tools. FAX machine, Internet email, cell phones, landline phones, amateur radio, CB radio, FRS radio, served agency radio – all of these are at our disposal and should be considered. We bring communicating skills to the table, not just amateur radio. There are stories of amateurs that pass long supply lists over the radio, tying up repeaters or frequencies, while sitting next to an operational FAX machine. It is not our job to “show off” our radios – it is our job to “communicate”. Just think about the best and fastest way to send it. Of course, when all else fails we do have the amateur radio.

So what happens during a communication emergency? Some scenarios will not require immediate action, for example during a “watch” or “warning” for a severe storm. This is the period to make sure you go-kit is together, and you are ready to go if called. Other scenarios will happen fast and will require immediate need – for example, an earthquake. Once the need for emcomm is identified, the served agency will put out the call for amateurs to help. Most emcomm groups have defined procedures for activation, such as defining a “rapid response team”. Nets will be established to handle resources and logistics, such as the processing and directing of incoming volunteers. Once these operations begin, things can happen quickly – message traffic grows, confusion exists. Do we have relief operators? Do we have food and water? Where will the volunteers sleep? Do we have batteries, fuel, other logistical needs? Communication assignments need to be made – shelters, gathering damage reports, handling supply requests and other logistical needs of the served agency. Nets will be established, rearranged and disassembled as the needs arise. Volunteers need to remain flexible. Finally, the demands of the emcomm communication effort will decrease, nets can be closed, and volunteers released.

But the emcomm event does not end when the last net is shut down. This starts the after action report period, which will help to improve the response next time around.

There are many additional skills to learn to help you become a successful emcomm volunteer – knowing who your served agency is, their organization, basic communication skills, message handling, net operating, and of course, personal safety, survival and health considerations. We will cover more of these topics on this net in the coming months. Also, the ARRL Amateur Radio Emergency Communication Course Level 1 is another opportunity to learn these skills.

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