This question hurts my head. Perhaps because I ask myself so often. Ham Radio operators, particularly ARES operators, are the best, highest caliber, good-hearted people I know. They’re willing to pretty much drop everything for an unknown period of time, in unknown circumstances, to provide communication when nothing else works. I am proud and humbled to be associated with all of you.
Ham Radio’s status changed somewhat after 9/11. When FEMA rewrote the book of public safety, we hams received a pat on the head and were told to go wait in the hallways of disaster and emergency management – that is, we were kept on the outside. To some extent that’s as it should be. We are not first responders, we do not have lights and sirens, nor do we have capes as super heroes. But still, we were not in the ‘loop.’ That has balanced out a bit lately, particularly with a congressional mandate to study and validate the fact that Amateur Radio is still at the ready to serve the country and should be included as an integral and appreciated part of this country’s defenses.
We are particularly fortunate in Delaware County. With the good groundwork laid by Don, KB8SIA, and the ARES EC’s who preceded him we are welcomed at the EMA and Red Cross and are an integral part of their planning. In many other EMA’s around Ohio, that is also the case. Emergency leadership actively seeks our services and appreciates the contribution of Amateur Radio.
But are we ready?
We can sit in our meetings, and we can work our parades and events. That does NOT equal working comms for a house-to-house search in the rubble of a devastating tornado. I does not equal the chaotic communication overload of setting up a shelter for storm ravaged victims. Can we, when the gauntlet is dropped, come up with the goods to actually handle an emergency event?
ARES is made up of volunteers. We have actual lives, families, jobs. And they take a lot of time away from the pursuit of our hobby. I am tremendously proud that we contributed over 2,000 hours of service last year! But when the bell rings, how many are going to be there with radio in hand, ready to go? I learned in the world of volunteer firefighting that it’s no shame to be otherwise committed when the bell rings. There’s nothing like the sinking feeling when driving to your regular job and hearing the fire tones go off back home. But that’s why there are many of us. With a strong membership, there will be a group available at any time, it’s just that the faces may change, and the number may fluctuate. In fact, we wouldn’t want everyone to show up at the same time. Real emergency events last days, weeks, years. We need a second-shift crew to be as capable as the crew they’re relieving.
But are we really ready?
A couple events this week give food for thought. First, the Red Cross Delaware Chapter and Emergency Manager Stuart Gray held a shelter drill. Because they had some newer people, training was important. While many talked about it, and table-topped it, and thought about it not that many had actually DONE it. So, it was time to set up a shelter from start to finish. ARES has thought about it, talked about it, volunteered for it but WE had never really done it! ARES has a responsibility to communicate for the Red Cross, so Stuart built into the plans the failure of all other communication after a tornado strike. Enter ARES.
Exit a very frazzled, tired, yet wiser group including Craig, Jim, Joe, Larry, Bob and Mary Frances. Craig’s report began, “Quickly overwhelmed.” It continued, “Serious hindrance,” “Needed another radio,” “Got loud, needed headphones- didn’t bring headphones,” “Needed picture ID’s.” and he went on. Now, I know Craig is conscientious and dedicated enough that his group did a very good job. The observers reported that, too. But it was a wake up. Some core issues correspond to some current projects: we need to get fldigi working, we need better radio equipment (go-box, repeater location, backups), and we needed coordination between being called out and reporting on the right frequency. All of that is planned, and some is being worked on actively. But it’s not finished and ready. And we need to be ready.
The second event was a three-day course staged by the Ohio EMA in which key forecasters from National Weather Service Offices including Wilmington, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Charleston and others provided an intense education in basic weather, flood conditions, winter blizzards and ice, thunderstorms, tornadoes and a bunch of looking at charts, graphs, milibars, and radar screens. Thanks to the invitation from the Delaware EMA, Joe, N8ZGL, Vicki, W8VES, and I ran the gamut of weather conditions in Ohio. The last day, we heard the EMA Director from Wood County describe in detail the events of the 2010 tornado which killed seven people in a late-night storm. As he described the good and the bad in how the event was handled (not specifically mentioning Ham Radio at all) I had to choke back my own memories of the Xenia tornado, and I had the recurring question, “Are we ready for something like that?”
No one really has the answer to that. No one could say before Katrina whether hams in the south were up for the biggest natural disaster in our history. No one could say in Haiti before the earthquake took out every other communication system yet dedicated Hams were there. Throughout the history of world disasters, hurricanes, tsunamis and other events, it has indeed been proven that Hams WILL be there.
But are we ready?
A tremendous amount of work, time, dedication and expertise has gone before us in Delaware. We are close! But there’s work to be done and this combination of events has prompted me to redouble my effort at becoming better prepared, better equipped and better trained as Delaware ARES. We need to crank out our ID’s!
– – Have YOU sent your picture yet?? Get up right now, grab your cellphone camera, and email it!! We’ll wait here for you.
Back? OK thanks! – –
We need to finish up our go-boxes (graciously donated by Joe, K8MP) and we will do more ‘real’ drills and learn from them! We can serve the public with our work at events- it’s great face time, excellent PR, and a service to our neighbors. But we need to get more serious about ‘The Big One.’ It’s not enough to sit in a nice meeting and think we’re ready. It’s certainly not enough to go about our daily life never training, never joining, and never practicing yet thinking we’re ready.
I observed in Xenia, I learned from Katrina, from Hurricane Irene, from Haiti, from wise planners that the answer to this question is, “No.”
We simply cannot be completely ready. No event is the same, there is no script for something that is so overwhelming. But we can be as ready as possible- with a chain of command, equipment at the ready, knowledge of how to OPERATE that equipment, training, practice, practice, and practice! The resulting confidence that builds when we’re up to speed with the normal stuff (messages, radio setup, antennas, people, understanding) makes us ready to improvise and extend our abilities as the situation demands. As it has been in Amateur Radio history, I hope as it shall be in the future. But now- we must get ready.
Reprinted with permission.