The Amateur Amateur: You Have to Eat Your Spinach
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Want to be an emergency communicator? Dig in!
No, this column has nothing to do with Popeye the Sailor. It has to do
with emergency communications. A great many Amateur Radio operators
truly believe that simply having a license means that they are fully
qualified “emergency communicators”. This is a fallacy.
There is something you need to do before you can honestly make such a
You have to eat your spinach.
“Say, what?” you ask.
You have to do some things you would rather not do before you can truly
call yourself an emergency communicator. In other words, you have to
eat your spinach.
First bite, you have to study. Being an emergency communicator is a whole
lot more than having a ham radio and knowing how to press the
Push-To-Talk button. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) has been
involved in providing disaster
relief agencies with backup communications for
almost a century. They took all those years of experience and
compiled them into a course, the Introduction to Emergency
Communications (course number EC-001). This course, which is updated
from time to time, gives a thorough overview and many details of what
emergency communications are all about. This is an absolute must for
anyone considering getting into the field.
Second bite, more studying. The
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides a large number of
courses that you can take, including a number of Independent Study
courses, which you can take on your own. The ARRL has coupled taking
its Introduction to Emergency Communications course with taking four
of the FEMA courses (IS100, IS200, IS700, and IS800). They are not
difficult. You can take them online and at your own speed. Once you
have taken these four course and the ARRL's EC-001, you're ready to
get your feet wet.
bite, join an Amateur Radio Emergency Services team. You could
join a Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) team, but there
are no standards for training or operating. Moreover, operators
working emergencies under the RACES umbrella must follow a number of
severe restrictions, including whom you can talk to. Operating under
the ARES umbrella allows you to do a lot more and connects you with
more resources. Note that some teams have successfully combined their
ARES and RACES operations. This allows them the freedom to choose the
system which best suits the situation.
Wait! Stop! You say. I'm choking
Well, okay. The first three bites are a good start. Some folks figure
that's all they need. But taking the courses and joining a team
aren't really enough to make you an emergency communicator. They are
just enough for you to put a decal on the bumper of your car. Keep
Fourth bite, training. Your team may have additional training courses of its
own, and it will very likely hold regular exercises. You may not be
able to make it to every course, or participate in every exercise,
but do your best. The exercises, especially, will give you a taste of
what operating under emergency conditions will be like. They almost
certainly will not be what you expected. Things will go wrong. You
will find yourself unprepared. You'll be expected to spend as much
time filling out forms as operating a radio. In the end you might
find the whole thing, or at least your part in it, to be a huge
debacle. But that is the point of the exercises. Not to show how
clever everyone is, nor how proficient. They are meant to show the
flaws in the planning, the communications, and execution of the
exercise. They show you areas of deficiency that need to be
addressed. It has been said that if an exercise goes perfectly, then
it is a failure.
Fifth bite, stay in touch with your team. It may have a website where it
posts new information, and it likely has a regular on-air net. The
on-air nets will probably ask listeners to check in, but likely also
has a training component to it. At the very least, learning how to
respond simply and succinctly without a lot of unnecessary chatter
will be a major purpose of the net.
You say you are fed up and want to stop. I will admit that if you took
all five bites so far, you can probably call yourself an emergency
communicator. But consider this, you've pretty much gotten used to
eating the spinach. And think about how strong your skills have
become. Read on, because the spinach starts getting tastier from now
Sixth bite, volunteer to help.
I do volunteer, you say. I've even gone on a few call-outs!
Good for you!
But what I meant was volunteer to
set up and/or man displays when your team is doing promotions. Help
plan the next exercise. Volunteer to mentor people who have just
joined the team. Sure, there are Assistant Emergency Coordinators who
do that, but I will guarantee that they are overworked. Your help
will be noted, and greatly appreciated.
How is that spinach tasting now? Not so bad after all?
And I'll bet you feel a lot
So, for those of you who want to
be part of the emergency communications cadre and have not yet started,
it all begins with that first bite of spinach.
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman