Emergency Preparedness Part 6 -
What do you know?
by Phil Karras, KE3FL
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In any emergency situation, we need to ask ourselves a number of
questions before we start.
1. What equipment is available?
2. What is the situation?
3. What will work?
4. What do I know?
I will cover all of these questions, in this article. The last
question, "What do you know?", asks it all: What do you know about the
situation, where you will be operating from, where do you need to
communicate to, what type of radio equipment is available, and what
will work in this situation?
In the best of emergency service worlds, we would not have to think of
these questions, at least not consciously. We would grab our GO-KITS,
pack up the car/van/truck, and we go. We would know that we have,
either as a group or as individuals, everything we will need to make
communications possible. This is the way a well-organized emergency
communications team should function. Getting to this point is a task
that never ends. We need to test ourselves and our equipment in every
situation we can in order to be ready for the unknown.
How many of you have tested out your equipment in different types of
situations? Not many, I would assume. I have more experience in this
area than most people I know and I don't have nearly enough. I am
always looking for new situations to test out my ideas, equipment, and
beliefs. The biggest problem is that I usually don't have enough
equipment or helpers. How many of you own two or more HT's on the
same band or HF rigs? Not many of us do-we can't afford it and, even
if we do, who among us have enough helpers with ham licenses
I have communication experience during outside walk-a-thons or
bike-tours. What motivated me to write this article was the fact that
I also have experience in assisting communications in and around large
buildings with operators who are not hams.
What do you do if you need to provide communications but the people
who have volunteered are not ham radio operators? This was the
situation I faced at my church where the older boys were helping out
during Vacation Bible School. They needed walkie-talkies (WTs) so
they could keep in touch while looking for any stray children. Ham
radio was out since none of these boys had ham licenses. What did I
have that would help here? Sometimes we need to think outside the
bounds of amateur radio in order to get the job done. If we can not
have an amateur radio control operator at every location, we will have
to use non-ham legal communication means to get to those locations.
What non-ham equipment is available?
For me, there were two old CB WTs and a mobile unit. I quickly made a
mount for a mobile antenna and found batteries for the WTs and mobile
rig. Both WTs had external 12 gel cell batteries since that was all I
had at the time. The boys had a good time and the equipment worked,
except that the antennas were too long. They had a base station in
the church and two roaming stations to patrol the grounds. The other
disadvantage was that all three boys wanted to be roaming around. I
picked up four newer CB WTs but these also had the long antennas, so I
designed and tested a replacement semi-flexible antenna which ended up
having about a half mile range over hilly suburban terrain. The idea
was to limit their range so they wouldn't interfere with anyone else
but they would hear each other.
These limited antennas worked very well around the church except for
the case where one unit was in the sound booth, the highest location
in the church, and another was in the basement. Once I told the boys
to use horizontal antennas and tilt the WTs horizontally, even this
communications path was easy.
I could have used 10 meter HTs if I had had them, but I'm sure I
wouldn't have been able to get four of them for $200. And on top of
that, I would still have the problem of getting people with ham
licenses to operate them or be with them as control operators.
What else is available? Well, the new FRS (Family Radio Service) HTs
are now coming down in price as well. I picked up a pair of 14
channel, 23-tone FRS radios for under $100. These are very similar to
our 450 MHz HTs since they are in the 462/464 MHz band of the General
Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). The GMRS requires a license from the FCC
but the FRS does not. The FRS radios are only allowed up to 500 mW of
output power and you may not modify the radio or the antenna in any
way. With CB radios, we are allowed to modify or use different
antennas if we want. So, if you plan to use FRS radios, make sure
they can do the job BEFORE the day arrives when they're needed. This
is good advice for any event and any equipment.
I have used the FRS radios in the same church during a construction
project. There were two people coordinating tours of the construction
and, rather than give them the CBs with the long antennas (I was
specifically asked, "Do you have anything that doesn't have such big
antennas?"), I let them use the FRS radios. For the short distances
and relatively equal height of the two positions, these worked very
These then are two, less expensive, alternatives to our ham equipment
for doing the same type of job our 10 meter and 450 MHz radios can do.
A club could easily afford four of each type if you find them on sale.
These could be given to special needful non-hams during an event. I
would not do this as a rule, but in special situations this might be a
very good alternative. We've been asked by people we were shadowing
(walking/being with in case they needed to communicate) if they could
use the radio without our people. I must say that I have mixed
feelings about this. In one situation where the non-ham radios ran
out of power, we provided shadows for key people. When we were asked
by these people if they could use the HTs to talk to each other
directly, rather than by passing the information to us to relay, I
said no. We were later complimented on our abilities and
professionalism. Their event staff even said that my decision was the
better one since the net communications turned out to be even better
than their direct communications had been. So, handing out FRS radios
to these people would not have shown them the true ability and
advantages of net communications.
In very special cases, it might be good to have the ability and
alternative of ahnding out FRS or CB walkie-talkies available. If we
don't have the ability, we cannot provide the alternative. If we
don't think outside the amateur radio boundary, we might not be able
to solve a communications problem or provide for a need.
I hope this has broadened your perspective on possible situations and
equipment we use. There is no law that says that hams can not use CBs
or FRS radios and, when on sale, these are much less expensive than
our equipment. We can give advice even if we can't loan out the ham
radios, and we can loan out CBs and FRS radios.
Some training is needed in the use of the equipment and on how to form
a serviceable net for communications for non-hams and hams alike. No
one will grasp this in one easy lesson, so don't get frustrated. Just
keep reminding them when they make mistakes or help them when things
don't work (horizontal antennas for up/down communications). When we
have enough hams and equipment, we can show the organizations we help
the advantages of a well-functioning communications net.
73 de KE3FL
Assistant EC Carroll County MD
OES, ORS, and VE
e-mail to: KE3FL
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