EmComm, or Emergency Communications is the practice of providing communication services during emergency response, especially in situations where traditional communication modes may not be available.
Overnight operations at a field station.
The primary role of ARES is to support the emergency management community (responders, relief and recovery agencies) with communications during times of emergency and disaster when normal communications are unavailable or overwhelmed.
We are communicators not first responders. If you arrive at the scene of an emergency just as the sirens are quieting, check in, keep your mouth shut, and get out of the way until you get an assignment! We do not provide first aid, transport victims, provide traffic control or any other function normally provided by public service agencies, nor are we running the show. We DO provide communication when public service systems are overloaded. We do not “self deploy.” We deploy when a partner agency requests our services.
Many hams think of ARES as a simple extension of the “talk time” in the hobby. This is not true. ARES are organizations that continually need more trained operators that are willing to learn to communicate rather than just talk. Do you have the time and the drive to do it well?
The goal is to provide trained operators that have learned to communicate accurately, clearly, and concisely in a timely fashion regardless of the obstacles in the event.
A brief history of Amateur Radio and Emergencies
“At 24 years of age on 14th of April 1912 Artie [Moore] received the faint signal of a ship in distress. The signal read: ‘CQD SOS 11.50pm from MGY we have struck an iceberg sinking fast come to our assistance position lat 41.46 north Lon 50.14 west MGY’. This was the distress call of the unsinkable Titanic! The call continued: ‘Sinking we are putting passengers off in small boats weather clear’.”
This was one of the earliest documented events where an amateur radio operator became part of an emergency response. It wasn’t going to be the last. One direct result of the accident and the participation by ‘hams’ was the United States’ “Radio Act of 1912,” which, among other things, formalized the Amateur Radio Service. Part of the mission is to provide a pool of experts that can be drawn upon to provide backup communications during emergencies.
This led in turn, to the founding of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), a ham radio member-society in 1914. As the ARRL grew, and the role of hams in providing communications grew with it, the ARRL established the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) in 1935. This standby radio service consists of “licensed amateur radio operators who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment with their local ARES leadership for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.”
That tradition of Hams responding when asked to help is a core aspect of the value of ham radio to the community, and it shows up over and over again. During World War 2, the government shut down amateur radio across the country over concerns about the Axis powers using radio for espionage and sabotage. Hams went to war, and hams went to work designing and building new equipment and training radio operators for the military. On August 21, 1945 the FCC suspended the ban on amateur radio operations and the Hams shifted back to a new peace-time normal. But while the war had ended, emergencies did not.
On 9/11 the local ARES groups were activated within 5 minutes of the World Trade Center attacks, and hams are critical for emergency response during hurricanes and floods. During the category 5 storm Katrina event, more than one thousand ARES volunteers assisted in the aftermath and provided communications for the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and other individuals related to the relief effort. After Katrina, Hancock County, Mississippi, had lost all contact with the outside world, except through ARES operators who served as 911 dispatchers and message relayers.
ARES has deployed for a variety of other emergencies and disasters, including the 2003 North America blackout. The blackout covered a wide geographical area of North America. In the United States its scope included Cleveland, Detroit, and New York City. Landline telephones and cell phone systems were overloaded and amateur’s ability to operate off the grid was put to the test. On Long Island in New York many pieces of health and welfare traffic were passed on VHF and HF nets. Because some television and radio stations had gone off the air amateurs helped fill the lack of information. This was not the first time that amateur radio operators assisted during a blackout in New York City. On a warm evening of July 13, 1977, lightning caused a power outage across the city and most of its suburbs. Radio operators started communication nets on simplex and on a repeater located in the Chrysler building.
Since the earliest days of amateur radio, hams have jumped in during emergencies. But as EmComm has evolved, being ready to ‘jump in’ isn’t good enough any more.
EmComm today – best practices
Just as amateur radio adapted to changing conditions and changing needs, modern Emergency Response has evolved. The days when emergencies were handled by an ad hoc group of volunteers are being replaced with organized teams of emergency responders trained to work together and to have a common understanding of the best practices and working vocabulary of modern emergency response. Starting in 2003 and updated in 2011, Emergency Response best practices are defined by NIMS:
The National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the five National Planning Frameworks (Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery) provide the process and structures for meeting these mandates. Together, these related efforts align Federal, State, territorial, local, tribal, private-sector, and nongovernmental preparedness, incident management, and emergency response plans into an effective and efficient national structure. –From G 0402 NIMS Overview for Senior Officials (Executives, Elected, and Appointed)
Volunteers from agencies such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and others work side by side with local officials, FEMA responders and the National Guard when an emergency strikes – and Amateur Radio operators are right there as well. When hurricanes threaten the coast, the Amateur Radio Hurricane Watch net activates, and organized teams prepare to relay communications. When wildfires strike, ARES and AUXComm members who have completed specific wildfire communications training are dispatched to the fire camps to run comms. During blizzards, amateur radio operators set up stations in shelters to relay information about capacity and needs – after spending hours training.
Modern Emergency Operations Center, dozens of highly trained specialists working together to respond to an emergency.
A typical ARES member may have put in 20 – 30 hours of course work, including table top exercises where the other players are local county emergency managers, FEMA employees, Civil Air Patrol members – in short the same team that will be expected to be on the front lines during an emergency. Beyond the classroom training, there will be hours of field exercises every year, Simulated Emergency Tests, and formal exercises with the local emergency responders.
Why all this focus on training and practice?
Since ham radio is their hobby, many hams have decades of radio communications experience. Some may have professional broadcasting experience, and others may be current/former first responders. In standards that have arisen with the introduction of the National Incident Management System, ARES members may also:
Be registered emergency/disaster workers under state law;
Possess certificates for (sometimes many) FEMA training classes;
Have passed law enforcement background checks; and
May be engaged in other volunteer activities such as Search and Rescue (SAR) or Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT).
To implement the goals of NIMS, the Incident Command System (ICS) has evolved into a complete end-to-end process for managing emergency response. Backed by extensive training courses (mostly free) it enables a ham radio operator to become certified up to any level they wish to achieve. In the Colorado Section of ARES there are 4 courses that are recommended ICS 100, 200, 700, and 800. These give the ham an understanding of what is expected, how things are organized, and provides the common language to talk with other emergency responders, no matter what their area of expertise. In addition, the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) offers EC-001 a free course available to both members and non-members covering Emergency Communications from start to finish.
A modern emergency response is a complex machine designed to save lives and protect property. Like any well oiled machine the parts that make it work need to be able to work together, to speak the same language, and to have the same ‘situational awareness.’ And that takes study and training to learn the drill and it takes practice to make sure the knowledge can be put to use. If you were to take a beautifully running engine, and just drop some gears into the middle of the machine – no matter how perfect those gears were, no matter how well machined they were – what would be the effect on the engine?
In an emergency hams have to be able to work as part of the machine. Regardless of how well-intentioned they are, regardless of how much they want to help, they need the skills and training and equipment to work as part of the emergency response team.
“If I’m responding to an emergency to provide communications, what equipment do I need?”
This is a question that comes up a lot – and (like many questions in Emergency Response) the answer is “It depends.”
First, as we discussed above, you won’t be responding to an incident as an individual – you will be responding as part of your team. You will get a call, text message, or radio message assigning you to a role. The first item of equipment is the “Know before you go” sheet. This is where you record your assignment – what is your role, who are you reporting to, when and where are you expected to be?
From this, the equipment question can be answered. Maybe you are being told to report to the local Emergency Operations Center – that could mean you will arrive at a facility that is already set up with everything you need to get to work: Power, Transceivers, and Antennas all set up and ready to go. Or you could be told to meet up with a partner and be prepared to pick up, deliver, and set up a complete rapid deployment field station at an incident command post. In that case, if you don’t bring it with you, you don’t have it to use.
As a result much of EmComm focuses on your ‘go-kit’, or rather one of several go-kits. A go-kit should contain everything you need to complete the assignment – and radio equipment is only one part of that. We tend to break down the go-kits into kits based on mission duration and tasking. How long will you be out, and what is your job.
For example a common 12 hour go-kit, is something easy to grab, and has what you need.
In this example, the 12 hour deployment kit is packed into a messenger bag with a shoulder strap. It contains a number of component bags – most are watertight plastic zip-lock bags. The contents are arranged into like items:
Radio gear: often a simple HT with a good antenna, spare batteries, and a programming cheat sheet – you may not know frequencies and PL tones until you get on site.
Uniform: You are part of a team and have a role. You need to identify so people can recognize your role. Also, this would include high visibility vests and /or hats for safety.
First aid: No you are not a medic – but if you cut your finger changing a battery, do you really want to bleed all over the equipment?
A typical Go Kit packed into a messenger bag
The Messenger bag unpacked into its component bags
Personal Protection Equipment: this can include a mask, Nitrile gloves, work gloves, goggles, and also any personal medications you need to stay healthy.
Documents and Identification: This would include ID badges, training certificates, a copy of your amateur radio license. Remember, you could be deployed to a site where they don’t know who you are.
As you can see, radio gear is only one small part of the kit.
Extended deployment kits are more complex, but follow the same basic breakdown.
For more details about equipment, check out EmComm-Equipment – either the online post or the in-person presentation.
Protocols & Procedures
Okay, so – you are part of an EmComm team, you have received an assignment, you grabbed your go kit and you have your “Know before you go” sheet filled out. Now what?
One of the key features of modern Emergency Response is that you don’t want to make the situation worse, you want to make it better. Or more simply: “Don’t become part of the problem!” So, there are specific procedures that are followed to keep responders safe. One of the first is that once you have an assignment – the Incident Commander is responsible for you. So you are going to notify the response team that you are heading out, possibly by phone, more likely by checking in to a resource net. This is a directed net that tracks all the resources – and you are a resource.
“Resource Net Control this is AD0ZM.
“Go ahead ZM”
“I am leaving home at 09:50 hours to report to the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds for assignment.”
“Copy that, AD0ZM, what is your starting mileage reading?”
“Odometer start is 137455 miles.”
“Copy 137455 miles”
“KD0TWC, 09:52 hours”
At this point you are ‘on the clock’ and part of the resource teams responsibility is to make sure you get home again. You may be assigned to show up at a staging area, or you may be directed straight to an assignment. Once you arrive at your destination, you again check in and let them know. The reason they want you mileage is that in many cases they get credit (or potential reimbursement) for travel expenses. In other cases, the total number of miles and hours from volunteers can become a significant line item in future funding.
“But,” you ask, “How would I know to check in to the resource net?”
Remember those hours and hours of course work, training, and simulated emergency tests? Much of what they cover are the protocols and procedures that you need to know if you are going to be part of Emergency Communications response.
While some of the training is on radio skills, you already know how to operate a radio. You need to learn how to operate a radio as part of an EmComm team.
For example, let’s talk about tactical call signs. You have your call sign – and it is like your name, it is part of your identity. You use it automatically, you may even have found yourself ‘signing off’ a telephone call with it, right?
But in an emergency, messages don’t necessarily go to a person – they go to a position. Think about it: in an emergency response that might span multiple days, the person in charge won’t be there for 36 hours straight. So messages don’t go to Carol Smith, they go to the Bennett Shelter Manager. This morning that was Carol Smith, But now it is Alex Atwood, and by tomorrow morning it may be Steve Brown.
The same holds for you as a radio operator. To assure speedy and accurate communications, you wouldn’t call into the net with your personal call sign, you would use your tactical call sign. It is much clearer for the net control station to hear “Net Control this is Bennett Shelter” rather than hearing “KC0XYZ, this is W9FRB”
First off, KC0XYZ may be sacked out after a 12 hour shift, so she is not even on the radio. Second, the poor net control station doesn’t have to find a piece of paper with the who is assigned where information to figure out that W9FRB is assigned to Bennett Shelter.
But what about the FCC requirement for identification?” you might ask.
The rule is “Tactical in, personal out.” So after you have completed your exchange with the Net Control Station, you are going to sign off with your personal call sign “W9FRB clear.”
EmComm has a number of standardized procedures and protocols layered on top of the FCC regulations and common radio practices that are designed to enable emergency responders to focus on the real issue – save lives and protect property. How do you learn these protocols and procedures? Join an emergency response team such as your local ARES group and train and practice.
Training and Practice
Operating a radio is just like any skill: there is a big difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. This is even more critical during an emergency where being able to do the right thing at the right time can save lives. The only way to get proficient and to stay proficient is to train and practice. So almost every EmComm group focuses of building skills and tuning them.
You may have breezed through your amateur radio exams, or you may have spent weeks, months, or longer to get ready to pass you license tests. In the same way that there are dozens of ham test training courses, there are lots of EmComm training courses as well. And, just as you can’t run a radio until you have passed the exams, most EmComm groups require that you pass exams about emergency response before you can respond to an emergency.
Fortunately, almost all the courses are free, and many of them are available on-line. These courses focus on the background and operations for modern emergency response and specifically the Incident Command System or ICS. ICS is the playbook for how to deal with emergencies from small incidents to large disasters. For example, every major hurricane response is run using ICS. ICS is also used as a great playbook for ‘planned emergencies.’ Large events like the Super Bowl or New Year’s Eve in Times Square are run using ICS.
So, if you want to get an idea of what emergency response is like, take a course (I’d recommend ICS-200 Basic Incident Command System for Incident Response)
This is typically a required course for anyone in an EmComm Group. It assures that whether you are working with your own team or a radio operator from the Salvation Army SATERN team – you are both speaking the same language.
Beyond the course work, EmComm groups focus on skills and proficiency. What does that mean? Well, it means we get to play radio a lot.
Combined classroom and hands on training on power systems used for amateur radio, specifically Emergency Communications.
Our group – Denver ARES – typically runs 8 to 12 hands-on training classes every year, and does 5 to 7 events where we put that training into practice. These could be Simulated Emergency Tests, where we work with our partner agencies, like the Denver Office of Emergency Management, to set up a simulation of a real world emergency – a major blizzard like the 2019 ‘Bomb Cyclone’ shutting down the roads and taking out the electrical power, or a flood event like the Front Range and Eastern Colorado saw in 2013. We treat it like a real emergency, taking over specific repeaters to establish communications, running field and base stations off of emergency power, deploying radio operators to warming shelters or evacuation locations and setting up field radio stations. We practice the exact skills we would need for a real emergency, and then go out for a party afterwards.
Here in Colorado we also deal with severe weather. The National Weather Service ‘SKYWARN’ program leverages the mobile aspects of amateur radio.
A Skywarn Spotter reporting weather conditions via Amateur Radio
In many counties members of the local EmComm group are deployed as weather spotters, tasked with the job of reporting to a specific location and reporting on weather. These storm spotters report directly via radio to a net control station, directly to the county EOC, or relayed into the NWS office in Boulder to enable the forecasters to make more accurate predictions and issue precise severe storm or tornado warnings.
This is NOT ‘storm chasing’! As a member of an EmComm group you are tasked with a specific job to do, assigned a specific location to do it from, and need to follow a specific set of protocols for how to do it.
Every group does things a little differently, and practices different skills, based on the types of emergencies they expect to have to respond to. But, every organization practices.
There are a number of organizations that provide emergency communications. Some simply provide EmComm services for partner agencies, some combine their primary mission with internal communications teams. Most are volunteer organizations.
Amateur Radio Emergency Services
The Amateur Radio Emergency Service® (ARES) consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment, with their local ARES leadership, for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes.
Every licensed amateur, regardless of membership in ARRL or any other local or national organization is eligible to apply for membership in ARES. Training may be required or desired to participate fully in ARES. Because ARES is an Amateur Radio program, only licensed radio amateurs are eligible for membership. The possession of emergency-powered equipment is desirable, but is not a requirement for membership.
American Red Cross
The American Red Cross provides two layers of emergency communications: first they maintain a number of licenses on commercial frequencies, and stockpile equipment for distribution to their response teams.
Second, they are part of a national Memorandum of Understanding with the American Radio Relay League which calls out (in part):
Whenever there is a disaster requiring the use of amateur radio communications resources and/or facilities, the local Red Cross region or chapter may request the assistance of the local ARES organization responsible for the jurisdiction of the scene of the disaster. This assistance may include:
• alert and mobilization of ARRL ARES® personnel in accordance with a prearranged plan;
• establishment and maintenance of fixed, mobile, and portable station emergency communication facilities for local radio coverage;
• point-to-point contact between Red Cross personnel and locations;
• the maintenance of the continuity of communications for the duration of the emergency period until normal communications channels are substantially restored, or until radio communications are no longer necessary in support of the response to the disaster
National Traffic System
The ARRL National Traffic System (NTS) is a well-organized system for routing formal written message traffic (radiograms) from any point in the United States to any other. Messages are relayed from one ham to the next, using a variety of modes such as voice, Morse code, radio teletype, or other digital radio modes. The NTS has its origins in the earliest days of radio as is indicated by the name, “American Radio Relay League” itself.
In times of emergency, radiograms may be used to communicate information critical to saving lives or property or to inquire or learn about the health or welfare of a disaster victim. During these times, NTS works in concert with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and other emergency and disaster relief organizations.
However, the NTS does not operate only during disasters. It operates day in and out 7 days a week, 365 days a year and is used by thousands of people, hams and non-hams alike, to send and receive brief greeting messages (happy birthday, congratulations on the arrival of a new baby, hope you feel better, etc.) as long as they are of a personal, non-commercial nature (as defined in the FCC rules).
Subject to international treaties governing “third party” messages, many foreign countries also allow their hams to exchange radiograms with US hams.
Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network
Since 1988, amateur “ham” radio operator volunteers have had a remarkable impact on the world in times of disaster thanks to SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network). These trained men and women often are the only link to the outside world during disasters when cell phones towers are down, land lines are damaged and electrical power is out.
To obtain critical weather information, the National Weather Service (NWS) established SKYWARN® with partner organizations. SKYWARN® is a volunteer program with between 350,000 and 400,000 trained severe weather spotters. These volunteers help keep their local communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service.
Although SKYWARN® spotters provide essential information for all types of weather hazards, the focus is reporting on severe local thunderstorms. In an average year, the United States experiences more than 10,000 severe thunderstorms, 5,000 floods and more than 1,000 tornadoes.
While not strictly an ham radio group local communities often work with trained SKYWARN spotters who rely an ham radio to communicate. During severe weather it is not uncommon for the traditional communications infrastructure to become overloaded, or to be out of action. Since amateur radio can operate without any external infrastructure, it can be ideal for relaying storm information.
Where to learn more
Denver ARES: http://DenverARES.org
Colorado ARES: http://ColoradoAres.org
American Red Cross: https://www.redcross.org/local/colorado.html
Salvation Army: https://westernusa.salvationarmy.org/intermountain_us_west/colorado/
National Traffic System: http://www.arrl.org/nts
ARES Manual: http://www.arrl.org/files/file/Public%20Service/ARES/ARESmanual2015.pdf
ARES TaskBook: http://www.arrl.org/files/file/Public%20Service/ARES/ARESmanual2015.pdf
ARRL EC-001 Course: http://www.arrl.org/online-course-catalog
Simply put, amateur radio emergency communications offers a very rich, challenging and rewarding environment to apply amateur radio knowledge and skills in unique situations where no one else has an available solution. Amateur radio operators that have honed their knowledge and skills have truly earned the right to be called emergency communicators.