Winter 2010 Issue

Emergency Communications

EmComm – Then and Now

By Mitch Gill, NA7US


This is the team that brought the first air-to-ground communications into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The author is
in the first row second from the left.

I have been an amateur radio operator for over forty years and have seen the many changes our hobby has gone through. Many of those changes have been for the better, but some came with a certain amount of aggravation. It seems that change is hard for most of us “old timers” but more readily accepted by younger hams.

Prior to 9/11, if there was an emergency your local government agencies would be clamoring for the assistance of local hams. We would merely arrive on site and be assigned a communications task, even if we were just as a backup for their communications. I remember as a kid seeing a mobile emergency setup of a local ham. It consisted of a Swan 500C and power supply with a trunk full of radios, cables, antennas, and parts—all stuffed neatly in a Studebaker. Now a ham can fit almost the same capabilities into a backpack.

Just prior to 9/11 our state (Washington State) and counties demanded that all emergency volunteers have an emergency volunteer card. This card protects the state in the event that a volunteer was hurt while assisting in an emergency by giving him/her medical insurance for that time period. I am sure that many other states are requiring this as well. In today’s post-9/11 era many organizations also require training that is given for free by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Some organizations may require background checks or additional training provided by the ARRL.  The real question is whether all this training is necessary in order to assist our fellow man.

I can only speak from my personal experience. As a member of the Washington National Guard and the Subject Matter Expert (SME) in emergency communications, I was asked to be a member of the first team from our state to fly to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Our mission was to set up communications for the operations center in order to control the air traffic in and around the city. When we arrived, there was no control system in place; several close calls between military and civilian helicopters made the success of our mission imperative. We arrived about 1:00 AM, and even though we were tired from the long flight, we managed to complete this task before the sun rose. As soon as we were up and running, we began our 12-hour shifts to monitor and assist. During our time off there was very little to do, and being a ham with a “Go-Kit” (which I had stuffed in my duffle bag), I set up my “shack” in the hallway beside my cot. My equipment consisted of a Yaesu FT-817 and a dipole taped to an A10 that was in for maintenance before the hurricane hit.

My first attempt was to try all of the repeaters that I had pre-programmed before arriving in the area. No luck, as most, if not all, had been damaged or destroyed. The one I did finally hit was deathly silent during the entire month that I was there. As for the HF bands, I have to admit that my antenna was located on a metal aircraft in an all-metal hanger about eight feet off the ground. I was lucky if I could hear down the runway, let alone anywhere else.

I did meet up with another ham who was an officer in the Louisiana National Guard. He shared with me how frustrated he was that they were denying entry into the New Orleans area to ham radio operators who had not been requested or who did not have the required training/background check. After returning to the state of Washington, I heard that this had occurred more often than not, even though amateur radio was touted for its support during Katrina. Today, five years later, there is a bill in the Senate seeking to have the Department of Homeland Security look at how amateur radio can be used to support its mission.

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