The Amateur Amateur: You Have to Eat Your Spinach

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
November 2021

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 claim.

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.

ARES logo
ARES logo

Third 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.

Fourth bite...

Wait! Stop! You say. I'm choking on spinach!

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 reading.

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.

RACES logo
RACES logo

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 on.

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 stronger, too.

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.

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