Sunday, February 3, 2013

Disaster/Emergency/Survival Communications

I have received several e-mails outside the blog (off-blog?), all dealing with disaster/emergency communications. Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, emergency communications (EmComm) has become extremely important, sometimes taking on a life of it's own on various blogs and websites. EmComm has spawned a subculture within the Ham Radio hobby that focuses on "radio readiness". Our national organization, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) offers several courses in communications readiness with the emphasis on EmComm. Countless websites and blogs are on-line offering their particular spin on this facet of Ham Radio. Each month the ARRL publishes an "E-Letter", a combination web-based e-zine/blog, hosted by Rick Palm, K1CE, that deals with EmComm and what is hot (and what is not) on the ARRL horizon. If you get the idea that EmComm is really important you are on the right track.

In addition to EmComm, the topic of "prepping" has also exploded upon the information super highway, with blogs/websites popping up like weeds! Prepping is the 21st Century version of Survivalism, a popular if not divisive topic of the 1980s and 90s. New name, same old game. Stir up the uninformed, easily duped, socially inept, conspiracy theory susceptible folks out there in middle-America and you have a ready made audience of people who could be easily led to spend tons of hard earned money laying in a years supply of food, horde military grade weaponry, take courses in armed and unarmed combat all because they don't trust their government. Hey, there's one born every minute, right?

PLEASE don't misunderstand me. I truly believe in being prepared. After all that was the primary message drilled into me during my time in the Boy Scouts when I was younger. A Boy Scout is Always Prepared (also "Thrifty, brave, clean and reverent!!") NO, I am NOT making fun of the Boy Scouts. Quite the contrary, their mantra of always "being prepared" has special meaning and merit in today's convoluted world. Natural and man-made disasters abound. Look no further than Hurricane's Katrina, Isaac and Winter Storm Sandy. Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens were adversely impacted, many of whom had to quickly evacuate their homes/sanctuaries and become refugees overnight. How many of these people were really "prepared"? A little pre-planning coupled with an evacuation/relocation plan would have made a tremendous difference in their overall well being as well as not becoming part of a larger problem.

Those of us who are Ham Radio operators have an additional requirement and that is to offer our selves, our gear and our unique communications capabilities in an effort to help mitigate these emergencies. If we are to fulfill our role in the Grand Scheme of Things, we need to become proficient in traffic handling, deploying our comm gear (including antennas and power equipment) in support of our served agencies (Red Cross, Salvation Army, local/county/state Emergency Management Agencies, DHS, and FEMA). To top all this off we need to be completely self contained; ie. autonomous, otherwise we become a burden on the very mechanism designed to mitigate the actual disaster. Bottom line: This EmComm stuff ain't no light weight deal! It is serious, deathly serious.     

OK, now that I have that off my chest, let's take a critical in depth look at disaster/emergency/survival communications from a Ham Radio perspective. I have long been an advocate of offering my services as an emergency radio communicator to my local community. Over the years I have been a member of Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), Radio Amateur Communications Emergency Service (RACES), Military Affiliate Radio Service (MARS), and REACT International, to name a few. This is, what I personally consider, a mandate from the FCC in exchange for allowing us to utilize the radio spectrum in pursuit of our hobby. My wife of 32 years, Patricia, KB3MCT, got her ham license specifically to participate in disaster/emergency communications. That is how serious the two of us take our involvement with Ham Radio hobby! There is virtually no hobby in the world that offers the participant the chance to give back to his/her community the way Ham Radio does.

So what makes an emergency or EmComm communicator? 20-30 years ago all you had to do is show up with a 2 meter HT and a spare battery and you were "in". Things are quite a bit different in today's post 9-11 world of emergency communications. Today you have to have training. Lots and lots of training. Almost all ARES/RACES organizations require a new EmComm candidate to participate in some kind of pre-deployment training program. Normally this involves taking a couple of FEMA on-line courses and passing a local test structured around their particular served agency. After you successfully complete this training you get some form of ID card and/or car placard that identifies you as a deployable emergency communications asset. Unfortunately, this trend has taken on gigantic proportions and the direction I am seeing things heading is NOT a good thing. More on this later. For now, let's concentrate on gathering the necessary training and gear to allow you to perform in an EmComm or disaster/emergency situation. We'll leave the "survival" aspect for later.


The one aspect of the military that I have carried over into civilian life is the idea that the more you train the better at your job you will become. My long time friend and former U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret), Jon Nelson, told me a couple of things over the years: First, "The more you bleed in training the less you bleed in combat". Interesting analogy. Second, "All training is good. Their is no such thing as "bad" training". Jon should know, as his life depended upon those two philosophies during his three tours in Vietnam with 5th Group.

One thing for sure, if you dedicate yourself to your craft, you will eventually become an expert, capable of doing things that others just stand back and marvel at. This can be directly applied to EmComm. Take, for instance, the task of message handling. The ARRL has the National Traffic System or NTS, a group of hams who regularly handle message traffic providing a free message service to anyone wanting/needing to send a message to friends/family, using Ham Radio. Local V/UHF networks (nets) handle locally generated traffic. Transcontinental (TRANS-CON) nets take locally generated messages and transmit them across the US and Canada via HF and digital links when needed. In essence we have our own message trafficking system that is independent from the Internet, cell phone, POTS (plain old telephone system) and other conventional transmission media.

Why would one want or need to utilize the NTS? I pose a counter question: "What is the first convenient communications system to disappear during a catastrophic emergency?" Answer: the cellular telephone system, followed closely by the internet. Neither of these communications mediums was, is now or ever will be as robust as amateur radio. Period. That is why we, as Ham Radio operators need to be on top of our game when it comes to EmComm, especially the fine art of message handling and handling net operations as a net control stations (NCS).

While, in all my years in EmComm I have yet to actually pass emergency traffic using the standard ARRL NTS message format, knowing how to do it puts in place a structure that I can rely upon when called on to generate or pass disaster mitigation messages. The actual NTS message format is not the point. The point is that you, by participating in formal traffic nets, learn proper net procedures and know how to check into and out of a structured/formal net, and, if necessary, assume NCS duties.

In addition to all the previously explained reasons for getting involved with ARES/RACES/NTS nets, there is a major push on to "go digital". While packet radio has been around for 30 years, it never found a real home until it was employed by EmComm nets to support message traffic during crisis. In addition to packet, there are other digital modes like WinLink 2000, NBEAMS, echolink, and others. All require specialized equipment and training to use them effectively. With the almost universal acceptance of internet e-mail, the idea that disaster mitigation professionals can utilize something very similar to e-mail (packet or WinLink), makes these modes an easy sell. However, you need training. You need specialized accessory equipment (terminal node controllers or TNCs). AND you need to know HOW to interface and use all this new-fangled digital stuff!! 

FEMA offers the EmComm operator a whole listing of on-line computer courses designed for disaster mitigation professionals. Most ARES/RACES organizations require at least IS-100 and IS-700 as prerequisites to becoming a deployable EmComm asset. These courses are easily taken on-line and offer a wealth of information to the new EmComm operator. Additionally, your local ARES unit will most likely require you to take and pass a local test regarding their particular served agencies, to become deployable. Again, good training. I know that many people think that they don't need this training and possibly perceive it as total "BS". However, let me assure you that the more training you have the better you will be prepared to fulfill your commitment as an EmComm operator.

It wouldn't hurt to look over the list of FEMA courses and take a few on you own initiative to round out your overall view of how emergencies are handled. Personally  I have taken courses on HAZMAT, shelter management, nuclear emergencies, etc. I also provide my local ARES training person with copies of these graduation certificates so my records are current in the event that I am needed to perform EmComm duties in a specific tasking as opposed to a general deployment in support of emergency shelters, etc.

At one time the ARRL offered various courses including antenna modeling, digital modes, etc. Currently the ARRL offers courses in emergency communications with links to other related FEMA courses. Check out: for the latest course summaries.

In addition, you would be well advised to check out courses offered by your local community college(s), county fire departments, etc. Citizens Emergency Response Teams (CERT) are becoming popular training grounds for concerned citizens that want to be involved with disaster/emergency mitigation. While not directly associated with ARES/RACES or the ARRL, these CERT units are a great way to expand your training and help your community. Your EmComm capabilities are a definite plus!  

Comm Gear

About 99% of your disaster/emergency communications will involve 2 meters and possibly 70 centimeters (cms) FM communications. Therefore, spend the money, procure a quality dual band (V/UHF) mobile transceiver (in the 35-60 watt range) and be done with it. Augment this with one or two dual band (V/UHF) 5 watt hand-held transceivers (HTs) and spare batteries, since you will need these for liaison communications. Most dual band mobile radios can be configured as remote-base radios, which basically means they can be used as a portable or mobile repeater system, right from your vehicle!! Cool, huh?? With a set of dual band HTs and a dual band mobile rig, you are set to do some real disaster/emergency communications. Whether you are deployed to a newly activated evacuee shelter or are "shadowing" an EMA/FEMA official, these radios will serve you well. You don't have to mount your dual band mobile in your vehicle (the "normal" configuration). Many ARES/RACES communicators have portable stations incorporating these mobile dual banders. I have a Stanley portable workbench system that contains two deep cycle glass-mat gel-cell batteries and an Icom IC-2720 dual band V/UHF rig that I can wheel into a shelter, EOC, or porta-potty, and be on the air within about 2 minutes! What's not to like!!!

My personal "Go-Kit/Go-Bag" has gone through many transformations. In 2013, after about 20 tries, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a perfect Go-Bag. I have used everything from a briefcase to a multi-container backpack, and I still haven't settled on a platform that satisfies my requirements. Patricia, KB3MCT, my wife and ARES/RACES partner, fails to fully comprehend my personal quest to get that elusive thing called a Go-Bag.

Go-Bag, "Get out of Dodge" (G-O-O-D) Bag, Bug-Out-Bag (BOB), reaction kit: what ever you want to call it, the idea is the same; something you can grab that holds everything you need for short term survival, that will help you perform as an emergency/disaster communicator. For years, in the USAF, I kept a Go-Bag in the closet in the event that I was tapped for a short-term deployment/TDY, in support of our on going USAF comm mission, both stateside and abroad. Missions change: the idea of a Go-Bag doesn't. As an ARES/RACES comm asset you are required to be deployable for a minimum of 72 hours, and that means you need to get your shit together and assemble a Go-Bag that will allow you to perform your EmComm duties.In short, you need to autonomous; independent of the disaster relief system you are there to support. The old adage, "If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem" holds true!

There are numerous Internet websites and books that will offer the basics of what you need to include in your Go-Bag. Personally, while their intentions are good, you really need to evaluate your specific EmComm duties and requirements, then plan accordingly. As good place to start is Seriously, Amazon has a bunch of "bug-out-bag" books and the wealth of information contained therein is priceless. My favorite is "Build the Perfect Bug-Out Bag: by Creek Stewart. This one small book is essential to get you conditioned to thinking like a person who needs "just enough stuff" to get them through the first 72 hours in good shape. While this book is geared to bugging out (emergency relocation) in times of a disaster, we hams can utilize it to formulate a template for a great bug-out-bag that we can use in our EmComm deployments.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for emergency/survival communications equipment. There is a definite lack of books on this subject, and I really don't know why. I have carefully considered writing a book for EmComm operators, with the help of two other extremely experienced EmComm communicators. However, the written media is coming to a halt in the not too distant future. In fact, the future is in e-publication. Therefore, I will be using this blog as a bully pulpit to further the knowledge of emergency/survival communications. So, stay tuned! Things are about to get interesting.

Until next time, get busy: find a local ARES/RACES group, sign up, get trained, turn out for training scenarios and offer your community the benefit of your experiences with communications.


Rich K7SZ



  1. Thoughtful, pre-emergency preparation and rehearsal helps fulfill one of the first and possibly the most important step in preparation: mental/emotional/psychological preparedness. As anyone who has been through almost any kind of formal (e.g., government-provided) survival training will tell you, if you're emotionally prepared, then you are also most likely well on your way to being logistically prepared. If you're emotionally unprepared, then the logistic planning and execution will be less effective.

  2. Here is what I say about prepping.

    You must prep your cupboard (food).
    You must prep your supplies (guns, first aid, etc, etc)
    You must prep your body (exercise)

    Without execution of all three prepping is not complete.

    chris, k4fh