The Amateur Amateur: Now We're Getting Serious

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
June 2019

ARES logo
ARES logo

My interest in emergency communications began even before I got my Amateur Radio license. I had used hand held CB radios when I ran security for a few Doctor Who conventions, and had also played around with police scanners a lot. We had a quite robust police scanner club here in St. Louis. That was largely due to the fact that our club leader, Mike, worked for the St. Louis County Police Department in the Office of Emergency Management. We were sometimes able to hold our meetings at their Emergency Operations Center.

It was Mike who urged us to get Amateur Radio licenses. Newly licensed himself, he organized and taught Technician classes. My wife Nancy and I were among his first graduates. One thing led to another, and the next thing we knew, we were Volunteer Examiners.

The emergency communications aspect wasn't just that we were in the proximity of the police and emergency managers, Mike was trying to beef up the Amateur Radio volunteer effort there. His main focus was Skywarn. He coordinated with the local National Weather Service meteorologist in charge of Skywarn training, and even taught some spotter classes himself. He managed to get the county to issue Skywarn certificates to people who attended the classes, and also RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) certificates to those attendees who were also Amateur Radio operators. He set up a cadre of operators who would report to the EOC during severe weather and take reports from Skywarn trained hams in the field. The reports were passed on to the local NWS office.

Although the Skywarn effort worked fairly well and did give local ham operators some experience with emergency nets, the RACES connection was pretty much limited to the certificates handed out to spotter class attendees. There was no other training, organization, or planning. Mike wasn't interested in interested in developing RACES beyond a vague plan stashed away in a forgotten file cabinet. I was quite disappointed when I found out.

Looking for some more serious way to learn about and participate in emergency communications, I discovered that the ARRL had just come out with its Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Courses (EC-001, EC-002, and EC-003). These were Internet courses coupled with regular contact with mentors. Nancy and I took the Level I course, and I went on to complete the Level II and Level III courses as well.

Not long after I had finished the three courses, I was surprised to find that there was a fledgling ARES® (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group in St. Louis County. I attended a meeting and found that the leadership was affable and well-meaning, but not very well organized. Trying to be helpful, I offered to perform several of the tasks that needed to be done, including setting up a Web site (which I am still stuck with maintaining) and teaching what I had learned in the ARECC online classes.

Unfortunately, the group was disbanded not long after I had joined. This was due to a number of factors, most of them having to do with personality clashes. What can you do? It happens.

The ARES District Emergency Coordinator was reluctant to see St. Louis County ARES completely vanish, so he looked around for a leader to start a new group. (He offered me the job, and in a rare moment of sanity, I declined.) It took a few months, but eventually someone volunteered to be the group's new EC (Emergency Coordinator). Enter Steve, a relatively new ham, who had tried to join the previous group just as it was being dissolved. Steve admitted right away that he was inexperienced, but willing to learn.

Oh boy, did he learn! He started checking out what other ARES groups were doing. He discovered the FEMA Independent Study courses and began taking them. As part of a large company's security force, he was allowed to take emergency management courses offered by the State of Missouri. And while attending these, he met various EMA professionals and discussed the merits of Amateur Radio with them.

The thing that I most admired about Steve, though, was his persistence. Getting St. Louis County ARES going was a long, hard process. He endured resistance, incompetence, and out-and-out antagonism, but kept on working to build the group. Most people would have bailed out early on, but Steve kept on going. He served as an anchor for the rest of us. As he learned, the rest of us learned. And as the group grew and became more competent in what we were doing, the more notice we got. Eventually, potential served agencies (clients) began to approach us.

That was a game changer. It's fine to take a lot of online courses and hold exercises in parks and such, but when an actual emergency management or relief agency knocks at your door, you begin to wonder what you really know.

It was time to learn some more.

rooftop andtennas
Antennas placed right next to each other on the lowest rooftop

Several things quickly became evident.

  1. Most served agencies insisted that all volunteers take certain FEMA course.
  2. Most served agencies had their own credentialing system.
  3. Most served agencies wanted specific operators, not just anyone from our group.
  4. Most served agencies already had Amateur Radio equipment installed.
  5. Not all of the served agencies took Amateur Radio, or indeed, emergency management seriously.


  1. Well, the FEMA courses weren't a problem, as our group was already insisting that all members take them.
  2. The agency-specific credentialing is a problem that has yet to be solved. People further up the food chain are working on that.
  3. It's understandable that an agency would want an individual operator so that they could get to know him/her personally, but if that operator isn't available, it becomes a problem.
  4. Agencies having their own Amateur Radio equipment is fine in some respects, but it is very often situated in terrible places, and the antennas are almost always installed in the worst possible locations.
  5. Some served agencies take emergency preparation and management very seriously. But others have the idea that they are emergency management (hospitals for example), and don't consider that they could have emergencies themselves. They only allow Amateur Radio volunteers in because it's mandated in grants they have obtained. Their own emergency manager is often also the head of maintenance or the grounds keeper.

So... training took on a new aspect, as we had to learn how to, very diplomatically, train the served agencies. It's still a challenge.

Another big challenge is becoming fully integrated into a served agency's emergency operations plan and being involved in its exercises. Almost all of our agencies have had such exercises, but all too frequently the Amateur Radio operator is just assigned a corner to sit in and nothing to do. That's another issue that we are struggling to resolve.

Recent developments have occurred to make life even more interesting. The ARRL, for instance, is revamping ARES itself. The idea is to bring ARES more in line with the National Incident Management System (NIMS), so that it can more smoothly work with other agencies. The League has a lot of plans, but hasn't managed to fully implement all of them yet. When they do, it will be time for us to adapt again.

ICS-300 class
ICS-300 class: Now we're getting serious

One agency that is fully on-board with using Amateur Radio volunteers is the St. Louis County Police Department Office of Emergency Management. After Mike retired some years back, St. Louis County ARES was invited to take over the county's RACES and Skywarn programs. Together, we rewrote the Amateur Radio Operations Manual, and merged the county ARES and RACES groups. The City of St. Louis also signed an agreement with us, and we became St. Louis Metro ARES/RACES. When the county's new Emergency Operations Center was built a few years ago, they made sure that a special Amateur Radio room was included, right next to the operations room.

Obviously we've had to become familiar with more policies and procedures.

The County Office of Emergency Management will only permit twenty ARES operators to have access to the EOC. Understandably, those "secure access operators", as I call them, had to have background checks performed, and must have taken the same four FEMA Independent Study courses required by virtually everyone else (IS-100, IS-200, IS-700 and IS-800). But this year they threw in a new requirement. They want the secure access operators to also take the FEMA ICS-300 course.

That is a bit trickier, as it is not an Independent Study course. It is a three-day-long course that you must attend in person. Moreover, it is only taught sometimes in some places.


Fortunately, the course had recently been offered in the St. Louis area. The latest offering was at the EOC itself, and was taught by the Office of Emergency Management staff. I managed to secure a slot for the class and took it.

I must confess that I felt overwhelmed. The course material wasn't particularly difficult, but it came fast and furious. As soon as it was presented, the students, who had been broken into teams, were given a scenario in which they were to use the information to come up with plans, fill out the appropriate forms, and then present what they had done to the whole class. The other students seemed to be able to handle the pace, while I sat there feeling like I was in the middle of a tornado. During a break I confessed to one of the OEM staff that I seemed to be a skateboard in the midst of a bunch of Ferraris. The staff member smiled and reminded me that I was a volunteer, while the rest of the students were professionals who did this sort of thing every day.

"We just want to expose you to what's going to happen all around you during an actual event," he said.

Okay, I thought, now we're getting serious.

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