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Ham Radio Weekend

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This weekend is a busy one. I’m taking part in a training and testing weekend with the local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Services). We’re meeting at a local fire station with a group of prospective new hams, and giving them a crash course in radio rules, physics, safety, and the like. Once we’ve completed the training, this morning, the students should have all the knowledge necessary to pass the introductory test for new Amateur Radio Operators, and receive the “Technician” class license. Yesterday was a full day’s work, with five of us serving as instructors. Today will have one last section of learning, plus a full review session. After lunch, the testing session begins. During testing, I will assist as an examiner, as I’m newly certified as a Volunteer Examiner.
I got one good piece of feedback out of my sessions yesterday as an instructor. One fellow, who has years of experience in broadcast radio as both talent and engineering, told me that I was the first instructor he had had in a long time that he didn’t want to help. That’s high praise.

Amateur Radio Emergency Communications

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As an amateur radio operator, I often get asked what makes being a ham special. When I explain how I can communicate by radio in so many ways, I get blank stares. I try to explain that amateur radio is classified as an emergency service, because of its use during disasters when other communications methods fail. Invariably, at this point, the other person asks why we don’t just use cell phones.
Right now, New Orleans is arguably the most severe disaster area that the United States has ever seen. Mississippi is looking pretty bad, as well. Right now, communications in those areas is virtually impossible. Telephone lines are down. Backup generators are swamped. Cell phones? Sorry, cell phones aren’t working either, because the towers rely on commercial power for their operation, and the power is out. Emergency services communications works from car to car, or walkie-talkie to walkie-talkie, but repeaters rely on commercial, power, backup generators and the like. Repeaters may also be located on towers that have fallen, or buildings that have been damaged.
This is where Amateur Radio comes in. Amateur Radio has two organizations built to handle emergency situations. They are Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). These organizations consist of amateur radio operators who are equipped and trained to provide emergency communications when all else fails. Amateurs can arrive on the scene of an emergency, setup antennas (not antennae), generators, and radios for their own use. Using networked operations, special message handling routines, and a wide range of frequencies and modes, amateurs can fill in for lost communications, and keep the relief efforts moving along.
There are many ways that amateur radio can fill the communications gaps. Some ways are very localized. Others are wide-ranging. The operators who arrive on the scene are typically trained to handle many options.
If landline or cell phone communications are available in limited areas, amateur radio operators can fill the gap between the 911 centers and the actual emergency services, passing messages by radio to ease the demand on the limited phone centers. Multiple command centers can be linked together with teams at each center, facilitating communications among the support teams. If necessary, operators can join rescue teams themselves.
Amateur operators will often man emergency shelters, where refugees of disasters are housed temporarily. They will relay information about how many people are housed, medical needs, and other valuable information.
Wide-ranging disasters may need emergency communications across each locality. Several counties, cities, or parishes that are affected may need to communicate with state officials. This is another job where amateur radio can fill the gap. When amateur radio is mobilized for emergencies, a station is routinely setup at the state emergency operations center.
Our modern world has a huge number of communications possibilities. Telephones, cell phones, Internet, pagers, Blackberries, and so much more. Nearly all of our modern communications requires an infrastructure to exist. When disasters occur, that infrastructure can be damaged beyond use. By arriving with their own infrastructure, amateur radio operators can make sure that emergency services, government agencies, and the general public, can still communicate. This helps the rescue efforts move faster, more efficiently, and more effectively than might otherwise be possible.
Watching Fox News, I saw a reporter tell how all across the New Orleans, he saw people walking with their hands up in the air. They held their cell phones, searching for a signal.
Signals are coming. Amateur Radio is on the way.

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