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September 30, 2009 > Amateur radio operators are communicators for cities, counties, and states

Amateur radio operators are communicators for cities, counties, and states

By Dustin Findley

On September 24 there was an informational meeting reaching out to Ham radio operators (Hams) who are licensed or want to be licensed, to join ARES/RACES (A/R), the organization of amateur hams who function as communicators during emergencies.

Sean Simonson, Office of Emergency Services (OES) gave a brief overview of his job and involvement in the SAFE program.

"You guys pay me to be paranoid" Simonson said regarding his OES position.
Simonson keeps track of everything and anything that could be happen in the City of Milpitas and make sure the City is "as prepared as extremely possible" to make sure Milpitas can bear any natural or manmade disaster.

Radio operators and communicators are an important link between the emergency operations center (EOC) and emergency personnel in the field known as "boots on the ground."

Hurricane Katrina is a great example of an emergency situation, no power, no radio, no communication, but Ham radio operators facilitated communication between that EOC and boots on the ground.

Simonson said that it is good to join Strategic Operations For Emergencies (SAFE) as wells as A/R. SAFE is an organization that Simonson helps to run.

"Our City has a group of volunteers, over 250 strong, of citizen volunteers who, in am emergency will come together, in teams that are pre-assigned, and help with the emergency" said Simonson.

To become SAFE you take a free seven week class, meeting on Thursday nights, with a Saturday final examination and graduation.

"You not only help by becoming a Community Emergency Response Team member, or CERT team member, but being an ARES/RACES person you have the extra benefit of being a communicator in times of emergencies" said Simonson.

A/R also wants to use hams for training during times of non-emergency, for things like the Milpitas Fourth of July Festival.

Any questions about the SAFE program call (408) 586-2810, or go to the Milpitas website, under SAFE and send an email.

The best person to contact about A/R is Tim Howard, Milpitas Emergency Coordinator.

Police Chief Graham said that A/R offer a crucial service for the City of Milpitas because ham radio may be the only form of communication available during an emergency.
Graham said that Howard has been a member of the Emergency Preparedness

Commission, though it was not always called that, for 13 years. Howard has been very active in the organization, participating in the annual evacuation drill at a Milpitas school, and also instrumental in developing several web pages on the City website that help Milpitas citizens prepare for emergencies.

Howard presented an overview of A/R, radio communication and emergency preparedness in Milpitas and Santa Clara county.

To participate in A/R you need to register as a Disaster Service Worker (DSW), because when you're working in emergency communications for the City you have to be on the worker's compensation roll.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states a few purpose

s for amateur radio. The first one that the FCC lists is emergency preparedness.
"Our primary role in ARES/RACES is to support emergency managers, in our case the City of Milpitas and the County of Santa Clara" Howard said. They provide that backup communication when other communication systems fail or cannot provide communication. They are an asset to emergency managers.

Hams have a low need for infrastructure, no need for power, Internet or telephone lines to do their jobs.

With the repeaters, radio transmitters and receivers, they have in place in the South Bay, they have sizeable radio power and reach, from Gilroy to Milpitas to Palo Alto.
It does not take long to get a ham radio on the airwaves, on the radio net or network of communication between radios, and communicate.

The A/R volunteers are motivated. They take the time to get trained, to maintain their equipment, to be available and take on duties at a moments notice.

Most hams are very technically competent people who have their radios. Since most have their own radios they are quick to deploy, become mobile and get to any location they need to go to and set up their equipment.

A lot of A/R members have back up power, solar, generators, back up battery power systems.

ARES is part of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), but you don't have to be an ARRL member to take part in ARES.

One of the key things that ARES does is support local public service events, community events, bike rides, parades, cancer runs and walks. These serve as training opportunities. Howard said you'll see hams out there all the time providing communications for those activities.

Non-profit agencies that ARES supports include Red Cross and Salvation Army.
Other important things that ARES does is conduct weekly radio nets, helping to maintain proficiency through nets, drills and partaking in the aforementioned public service activities.

RACES is the government arm of emergency preparedness in ham radio. This is basically administered by the City, County or the State.

In a declared emergency, RACES takes over ARES, and becomes a resource for OES.
Immediately after a major disaster A/R trained radio operators can provide initial damage reports for the City, the County and the South Bay, which helps emergency responders identify where there is a need, and where to send resources.

During an emergency A/R trained radio operators pass official traffic between the City and the County, between the Milpitas EOC and the County EOC.

Trained radio operators can also facilitate communication in mutual aid requests to city services like police and fire when communication systems fail in non-emergency situations like power-outs or telephone lines going down.

Even though they have different names and different legal definitions, ARES and RACES in Santa Clara County are effectively one organization.
ARES becomes RACES in an emergency declared by the City, County, or State government, and starts doing the RACES job immediately without having to change people, resources, equipment or frequencies.

The customers, or "served agencies," of A/R can vary in times of non-declared emergency, public service event, or declared emergency, from the City, police, fire, Red Cross, school district, and others.

"When we work for these people, they are in charge. We don't run an event. All we do is communicate. We are not first responders. We are not Emergency Medical Services. We're not police. All we do is pass message traffic" Howard said.

A/R leaves the incident management to the officials, whether it's the person running the parade, or the police chief evacuating a building somewhere.

Because they work with professional emergency responders, A/R members have to earn credibility with them and demonstrate their professionalism. A/R members do that by talking the way they talk and working within the system they work in, the Incident Command System (abbreviated ICS).

ICS is required by law. Local, County, State, and Federal emergency agencies all use this system as a way to manage emergencies or other events. It is a management tool to organize resources such as people, facilities, equipment, fire engines, airplanes, tankers, food van, or even a radio communicator.

This organization is done breaking the operations of an event into four basic areas: operations, planning, logistics, and finance.
Howard explained that the ICS is a scalable thing, working for one police officer directing traffic after a traffic accident, to an event as large as the World Trade Center.
At the top level of ICS is the incident commander. Managers of operations, planning, logistics, and finance fall under that, with different branches falling under the four basic areas.

In the operations group you might have a wild land fire branch, or a strike force branch.

Logistics is responsible for providing resources, from vehicles to food. Radio communicators are a resource that serve as a branch of logistics in the ICS.
In a non-declared emergency or public service event, A/R is activated by the Emergency Coordinator, for Milpitas Tim Howard.

As an example, a person organizing a parade would call Howard, request five radio communicators at this time. Howard would make the determination if that was something they wanted to do, and seek volunteers.

In an emergency, A/R is activated by "competent civil authority." These are government officials, watch commanders, fire and police, emergency service managers, EOC directors, someone in a position of authority within the government to activate A/R.

Members of A/R are basically activated as unpaid City employees. To become a member of A/R a person needs to train in the methods and language of ICS.

Howard listed some of the communication things they might do as A/R: During a disaster some would occupy the Milpitas EOC, communicate with SAFE boots on the ground; field operations at an incident command center; conduct a "windshield survey" by driving around the neighborhood, observing and reporting the conditions in that neighborhood; shadow a person of special significance (VIP) to relay communication, keeping the VIP in touch in the field; communicating for care and shelter facilities, ordering meals and bedding would be helped by a radio communicator.

Other facilities that may need ham radio communication include medical facilities, senior centers, and fire and police stations.

Public agencies to serve might be the Red Cross, Salvation Army, water district, and volunteer centers. In a major disaster a lot of people go to a volunteer center, and an A/R member may be asked to serve as communicator in that location.

Members of A/R may also be called to a staging area. Howard illustrated a staging area by saying if there was a fire in the Milpitas hills, and the City couldn't handle it with its resources and requested mutual aid from other cities and counties, those resources wouldn't go right to the direct location of the emergency. They would stage, some

distance away, and brought in by the incident commander if they were needed.
With so many people on the radio it would be chaos without the net controller, who monitors and manages the radio net, prioritizing and excising chatter during an emergency. The Milpitas EOC needs to pass information to the County EOC because they need to know what's going on.

The Milpitas EOC is the nerve center for emergency operations, divided into the four sections of ICS.

An A/R radio operator cannot self activate, even in the event of an emergency, because he is a government employee and has to be assigned and supervised. He also receives an activation number from the issuing authority.

Activation means the City or other served agency calls or A/R help, and the A/R coordinator seeks volunteers.

Radio communicator service under A/R is not mandatory, even if RACES is activated during an emergency.

RACES is only activated by government authority. ARES was activated during July Fourth to look for illegal fireworks.

In a real incident an unprepared Ham is a liability to emergency radio communicators. They don't have time to teach or train to make sure operators know what to do.

"We work with emergency responders who are professionals. They take a lot of training. They take a lot of classes. They do a lot of experiential things to learn their job. We're called 'amateurs,' but we're only amateurs by virtue of the fact that we're unpaid. We still need to act as professionals in our communication role. And for us to be respected by the real professionals who are paid we need to be trained and experienced to do our job at the same level that they're expecting us to. You can't just show up and pick up a radio, and start doing things without that training and experience." Howard said.

Emergency radio operators help those who save lives and better serve their served agencies by getting training and experience, seeking opportunities to practice skills and knowledge.

Such experiences can be found at community events, parades and bike rides.
There are formal drills in the county every three months. These drill

ls are usually focused to exercise a certain aspect of what radio operators do.
Formal training is also available. In addition to the online training to get ICS certified, there are also classes offered by the county. Once a month there is a county class on different aspects of emergency communication.

Increase skills by learning how to use the message forms, be a net control operator.

If interested in joining the next steps are to join ARES, become a DSW, join the email list, visit the website, take classes, participate in public service events and the weekly net.

During the weekly net for ten minutes, at 7:15 p.m. every Tuesday night, a net control operator comes up and all of the people involved check in, tuning into the correct frequency and operating the radio. As operators get more experience they will be asked to participate as net control operators.

There are also weekly nets in the county through Silicon Valley Emergency Communication Systems (SVECS, "ess-vex"). Visit for more information.

Becoming a DSW involves taking a loyalty oath swearing allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, and very likely being a Citizen of the United States. Public service agencies like Red Cross need radio operators, and have less rigid citizen requirements than ARES/RACES.

Contact Tim Howard by sending an email to and visit for information. Join ARES by visiting

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