Wednesday, December 5, 2012
DIGITAL EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS IN AN ANALOG WORLD
One of the really cool things about amateur radio is all the different ways it can be used. Sure, it's fun to just throw out your sign and see who's hanging around out in the aether. I meet all kinds of people that way. We sit around and talk about whatever comes to mind. Before you know it, others have joined in and the conversation just follows a natural course. In the ham world this is called "ragchewing".
But, there's a more serious side to amateur radio that's even more interesting. Emergency communications. You've probably heard on the news how ham operators become the primary source of communications during natural disasters when the normal communication systems go down. As the saying goes, "When all else fails - ham radio".
This doesn't just happen by accident. There's a well established training system in place, organized by the ARRL. It's called ARES. Other countries have their own groups but here in the good ol' U.S. of A. ARES is the place. I belong to our local group, Franklin County ARES.
ARES works with local, state and federal emergency management agencies to establish alternate communication systems for those times when the traditional systems are overwhelmed. Surprisingly, in this age of technology, cell phones, sat phones and everything else, our communications systems are one of the first things to go down. Just look at Hurricane Sandy. At least a third of the cell towers were knocked down. The hard wired system was heavily impacted. The parts of it that were working were overwhelmed. The police and fire systems are fairly limited in the frequencies available to them and the distance they can communicate. And they rely on repeaters on some of those same towers that had been destroyed. So, in just a matter of seconds the infrastructure that supports all of our communication can be, if not destroyed, seriously compromised.
Ham radio, because it relies only on individual dispersed stations, not massive technology centered in vulnerable locations, can ride these sorts of disasters out. If one station goes down there are many others to take its place. It's the ultimate in redundancy. And the skills, equipment and frequencies, not to mention the modes available to hams far outdistances that available to nearly everyone else.
So we train. We learn to follow established guidelines for proper communications. We learn how to set up and support various agencies such as the Red Cross and their shelters. We practice with different radios, different power systems, different modes of communications. We work closely with our local EMA's (Emergency Management Agency) to develop coordinated systems of communications to support them in times of emergency. We're trained in damage assessment because we may be asked to go out and put together reports to radio back to the EMA so they can determine where the limited resources they have at their disposal can do the most good. Many of us belong to other groups such as CERT so we're cross trained in first aid and light search and rescue. We train with local fire and police so that we can support them if needed. We learn basic traffic handling skills, the same sorts of skills the telegraph operators used 100 tears ago.
All this is done on a volunteer basis. And the funny thing is, most Americans are completely unaware of it.
Last night was one of those training nights. The great thing was that I didn't have to leave the house to do it. We were working on digital communications. You heard that right - digital. We combine our radios and our computers to send digital files and text messages over our analog systems. It's sort of like a simple internet.
Why would we do this? First, it's a whole lot easier to send a whole lot of information quickly this way. Say a shelter needed a list of supplies transmitted to a supply depot. Transmitting it verbally would be time consuming and error prone. But, send a Word doc or spreadsheet and it's accurate and fast. The same is true of any other sort of list or report. During an emergency there's plenty of need for lots of information to be disseminated quickly and efficiently.
The other reason for digital communications is security. Our transmissions, by law, have to be available for anyone to monitor. During an emergency various agencies will need to transmit information that they would rather not have freely disseminated among the media or other groups. The chances are that most of these groups will not have digital receive capabilities so our transmissions will just sound like a fax machine to them.
So I set up the software last night and made my first digital transmission. And it worked. I need to make a few adjustments and I could buy some additional hardware that would make the process easier but what I have worked and that's all that matters. It's really cool moving digital files around among a whole group of different computers scattered all around Franklin County without relying on the internet and the massive global infrastructure it needs to function. Just a laptop, a 2 meter radio and a home brewed antenna.
Self sufficiency in the digital age. I'm lovin' it!
Anyway, my next post will be about the software that supports this and setting up the radio and computer. Yep, it's geeky. But if you believe, as I do, that this whole world and all the complex systems it requires to function are teetering on a razor thin edge, then you understand that learning these sorts of communications skills seems as natural as learning how to raise chickens and cure meat. And becoming part of the group that will support them in your local community is a common sense prep for the coming collapse.