A Well Trained Operator

by John KG7JKN on 2015-09-08

I have been exposed to ham radio since I was a child, but having only gotten my ticket a year and a half ago, I have a lot to learn and my perspective on using radios in emergency situations is still fairly fresh. As I have been learning, I have come across quite a few good articles about hams coming to the aid of others in times of trouble. Here in the Northwest, we only have to look as far as the March 2014 Oso mudslide in Washington, where hams played a crucial part in making sure that the communications network was solid and that information got where it needed to go. Of course the tragic loss of ARES/RACES members Jerry Martin W6TQF and Reid Blackburn KA7AMF (among many others) during the eruptions of Mount Saint Helens back in the spring of 1980 underscores the potential danger hams may face as well as the selflessness that is displayed by many who give their time and expertise to helping others stay connected.

Since I joined ARES a little more than a year ago, I have had some pretty interesting conversations with friends about what we do and why something as seemingly arcane as ham radio would be so important. I have heard plenty of people claim that cell phone and Internet technology makes radios more or less obsolete, especially when you consider how much data is available online. I will readily admit that the availability of early warning apps and incident emergency management software is a great achievement, but when the networks go down, radios are still your best bet.

It’s not just the radios though. It takes well-trained operators to make a system work. As ARES members, the mission is to get the message through by whatever means possible and whatever medium is employed. It is really the operators who make this such a critically important system. When we volunteer at public events, we are practicing the protocol and discipline that keeps the airwaves (and ultimately the mission) organized, clears out the confusion and perpetuates habits that may save lives when an emergency arrives.

Of course, ARES does not operate in a vacuum. No matter where or under what circumstances we deploy, we find ourselves assisting and integrating with many other organizations. In my case, besides being a member of ARES, I am the ARO (amateur radio operator) for the Beaumont-Wilshire, Alameda NET (Neighborhood Emergency Team). If you are not familiar with this group, the NET program consists of around 2000 currently active volunteers throughout the City of Portland and operates under the auspices of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM). Our main mission is to provide immediate assistance in our neighborhoods in the event of an emergency. We are trained to do search and rescue, first aid and to set up communications as well as prepare for the arrival of professional responders. We also deploy to assist for community events and to help operate warming and cooling shelters during extreme weather events.

As most of my team members are not hams, we depend on FRS radios as our means of radio communications for drills and deployments. For the past year, I have been running a net, prior to our monthly meetings in order to help train members on using their radios and to get them used to talking over the air. While participation has been fairly active, it is still only a 15 minute net, once a month so I have been seeking out ways to help the team learn some of the important aspects of radio use. Last year, Jeremy Van Keuren from PBEM was kind enough to send out a note from me to team leaders and AROs throughout the city, asking some questions about training and how they are overcoming issues relating to poor reception and such.

The response was encouraging and enlightening. Many teams have taken time to map their areas and determine where the weak links are, and quite a few have instituted strong communication training components into their preparedness regime. I took this information and wrote up a guide for radio use to distribute among my team. It was a great exercise for me and definitely helped my team move forward, but it also opened up some good connections between me and the ARES people who are actively training NETs in radio use (Michael AE7XP, Helen KE7SCS, and John K7TY). I have collected the various guides and trainings out there and attended an excellent training given to the Irvington NET by John K7TY.

This all points to one core point. If you are going to get good at something and commit it to that crucial “muscle memory” that we depend on in stressful times, you need good training and lots of practice. This ties in to our recent training in ICS 213 and NTS radio traffic handling. While I learned the use of both well enough to gain my ARRO certification last year, I find that spending time listening in and copying traffic on the NW Traffic and Training Net (6:05 PM every evening on the WORC repeater system) helps me to keep my skills honed. Learning how to use our radios to communicate has definitely helped our NET develop as a team and we have dedicated more time to actually getting people on air, practicing calling in and learning how to get the message across clearly and concisely. As our team is spread out quite a bit, we are also planning on taking some time to map out how our locations affect our ability to communicate. This is a work in progress and we will be on the lookout for ways to keep honing our skills so we will be ready and able to respond when the need arises.

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