On Serving as a Ham: Never a Better Time

Recently, I read an article in the June, 2017, issue of QST, page 9, written by the new ARRL CEO, Tom Gallagher. The article was obviously spawned by the perceived threat of continual modernization of emergency communications by commercial providers, and in this article, FirstNet (as the National Public Safety Broadband Network is commonly known) was specifically mentioned. He states that all this modernization of emergency communications services “causes angst in amateur radio circles.” He rightfully disputes the claim from some that the end is coming for volunteer communicators who wish to support their communities with emergency communications. He continues to state that “there is a role for us here, it’s a new role.” He goes on to say that “new is sometimes painful; change is sometimes difficult” and that we must now find “a new place within this structure.” Mr. Gallagher also mentions the need to more readily adopt digital communications. Anyone involved with EmComm (emergency communications) must certainly realize this. Let’s look at the resources available.

With each new and enabling technology comes new vulnerabilities. Today, emergency services use trunking, simulcasting, satellite services, internet links, and other combinations of enabling technology that make their jobs of first response and recovery easier. Interoperability is a key part of all this as is the National Incident Management System’s Incident Command System. Never before has there been such cooperation between various levels of our civil authorities and their NGO (non-governmental organization) critical infrastructure partners. With all this innovation and organization in emergency services communications, how can amateur radio find a place of value to those who do this for a living? After all, the amateur spectrum is allocated for use as a PUBLIC SERVICE and not an emergency service. A fabulous example of assistance by Hams on the Amateur spectrum is that of our assistance to the National Weather Service and Hurricane Nets. However, for seamless emergency work with our civil authorities and their partners, confidential information is necessarily protected by many methods that obscure message content and as such, may not be transmitted over the amateur spectrum because “messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning” is specifically prohibited by FCC rule 97.113(a)(4). In addition, there are “annoying” restrictions under FCC rule 97.113 on those who are being paid to deal with emergency management when it comes to operation on the amateur spectrum. Thus, as a Public Service, amateurs may use their spectrum for health and welfare, weather warnings, and other such communications where circumstances do not require confidentiality of the information transmitted. How then can amateur communicators become involved in actual emergency communications where open communications is definitely not allowed?

In his article, Mr. Gallagher says, “what does FirstNet tell us about the future needs of the Emergency Management establishment? They are digital. In the last analysis, the Emergency Management establishment doesn’t care about what radio amateurs can do. It only cares about what amateurs can do for the Emergency Management establishment. And if our traditional skill set requires burnishing, let’s burnish it. We can provide a meaningful contribution. Otherwise, we risk being condemned to irrelevance.” What a wonderful statement, and how true. In my opinion, this is very insightful, and fortunately our government has provided several helpful solutions to both emergency management and the willing Amateur operator. With regard to digital communications, can U.S. Hams provide a speedy, secure and reliable data transfer using only the spectrum provided in the FCC rule, Part 97.221, “Automatically controlled digital stations?” Like standard email, store and forward transmissions of complex messages sometimes with binary attachments and multiple recipients require higher speed data transfer, and the (so very) narrow spectrum where this is allowed in the US is a major deterrent on our own Part 97 amateur spectrum as is the FCC Part 97.301(a) restricting the symbol rate to 300 baud, which causes digital techniques to contain more bandwidth than necessary in order to meet this requirement. Thus, regardless of the desire to migrate to digital communications, in the U.S., we are greatly hampered if we are to make an impact as communications volunteers for the emergency management establishment, at least on our amateur spectrum under FCC Part 97. But, the good news is that there are now other options available for the use of our radio communications expertise. Read on.

"Rocks are hard, water is wet, and things change.” This is a quote from me in a May, 1998, QST two page article regarding the Winlink radio email system, and how it was assisting with the safety and well-being of the various amateur radio mobile communities worldwide, including the RV, missionary, and maritime communities who needed accurate and current weather information as well as access to their family and friends via standard internet email. That quote certainly applies today. In 1998, there was much resistance to involving the internet on the Amateur spectrum. “Internet email is not Ham radio” and "digital communications is not acceptable on our Ham bands,” and on and on. Granted, not many Hams were familiar with FCC rule 97.221, which was spawned by a group of Hams using ApLink (predecessor to Winlink) who formed the “amateur radio Digital Society,” a Delaware corporation, which consisted of a handful of Hams wishing to legalize store and forward transmissions from automatically controlled stations. With the help of the ARRL, we got our sub-band spectrum, but we had to fight tooth and nail in order to get practical use from the few frequencies provided for such an operation. Fortunately, many governments including the U.S. have recognized this and have since adopted Winlink for their HF digital network, and even though they do not always use their country’s Amateur Radio spectrum, they do continue to use the unique HF radio expertise of those who call themselves Hams. This is the case in the U.S. with HF (digital) Winlink combined with mesh networking, as well as voice services.

Fortunately, our U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center’s National Coordinating Center for Communications SHAred RESources High Frequency (HF) Radio Program (very long for “SHARES") has adapted this HF radio contingency communications system for civil emergencies for most levels of civil authority and their critical infrastructure partners. Thus, many agencies at all levels and their partners are using SHARES voice and data (Winlink), mostly through the utilization of volunteer Hams. Due to the nature of today’s emergency communications management, very little if any HF operational expertise resides internally within these organizations, and those that do have such skills don’t have time to use them. Thus, the recommendation to the SHARES participating agencies is to request the use of nearby amateur radio operators – operators, not spectrum. Why SHARES? The SHARES mission is dictated by the individual member agency’s mission. Also, there are very few obstructions to their dedicated offered HF channels. They may obscure data such as HIPAA and other confidential information from agency to agency. They have a dedicated Winlink hybrid digital network that operates with or without the Internet, and they have Interoperability between this system and their normal communications, and again, without the FCC Part 90 or Part 97 restrictions. But, they also need assistance from the amateur community. Using well trained volunteer communicators not only relieves the paid employee from having to deal with the installation and operation of HF voice and digital radio, it also allows relationships to develop that can greatly assist the agency during a communications blackout of public safety communications regardless of its type or level of sophistication. Ham can learn the Incident Command System, and do many tasks that are assigned to them regardless of their volunteer status. Many agencies vet their volunteers just like they would a volunteer to a fire department providing Workers Comp. etc. And, again, off the amateur spectrum, they can ask more of the willing ham than the FCC Part 97 rules allow. So, how can qualified volunteers become involved with SHARES? My advice is to take the basic FEMA on-line ICS courses, develop a relationship with someone in their state or county Emergency Management Agency, and suggest that they investigate the SHARES opportunity so that you, as an amateur, can better assist them with whatever they may require. Fact is, your nearby agency may already be involved with the SHARES program.

In addition to the SHARES program, which solicits county, state and federal agencies and their NGO partners, there is also the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) program that solicits Hams as volunteers. MARS does not directly support civil authorities, but is under the Department of Defense, and supports military endeavors. Since MARS (DOD) is a federal agency, a MARS member may apply and be accepted into the SHARES program, and become involved in civil emergencies and other SHARES activities when not needed to support DOD communications. It is not the only way into the SHARES program, but worth a mention here.

The DHS office of Emergency Communications (OEC) also offers a classroom course at no cost called AuxComm that specifically describes how to interact with an emergency agency in order to become an effective volunteer, These courses are at various times in various places, depending on how supportive your Statewide Interoperability Coordinator (SWIC) is toward volunteer communications support for its state’s civil authorities. If they don’t perceive a demand, they won’t participate. There are FEMA sponsored classroom courses that will greatly assist the Amateur communicator in becoming an effective volunteer for their nearby civil authorities. ICS-300, COML, and COMT are but three that will not only educate the volunteer, but also allow them to interact through team building with those very individuals they may serve during exercises or a real-life disaster. The emergency management establishment does need assistance, but only when they trust the expertise they may potentially use. Otherwise, they will see no value in the services we may attempt to provide. Bottom line: it’s all about building relationships here.

What I have learned by being asked to chair an “AuxComm Working Group” for FEMA is that the agency couldn't care less about our status in our own amateur organizations. Their attitude is “leave your badges at the door, and bring your skill sets. Dress like you are a professional, and remember, when you enter our premises as a volunteer, you report and respond to us, not your organization. You may represent your organization, be it professional or volunteer, but we must maintain unity of command in our EOC.” Makes good sense, and it (NIMS ICS) works!

As Mr. Gallagher concludes, there is a role for us, and it is a new role. He states that new is sometimes painful, change is often difficult, but I can add to his statement by saying it is also exciting and very gratifying to be involved with those who are there to protect our safety and well-being on a continual basis. There is much for us to do. Actually, the more sophisticated communications becomes, and the more elements it uses, the more vulnerable it can become. Horrific weather and other natural disasters, mishaps caused by our own failing infrastructure along with those caused by malicious attacks are but a few deterrents to all public safety communications. No such “system” is immune. For me personally, proof resides in the feedback I receive, nationwide, as Chair of the FEMA Region 4 RECCWG “AuxComm Working Group.” This AuxComm committee was requested by participating members (mainly State EMAs and Interoperability officers) in order to build better relationships between NIMS trained volunteer communicators (Hams) and their nearby civil authorities through better education of all involved. Being the Winlink administrator for many services over the years has also led me to the same conclusion. My reading is that there has never been a better time for amateurs to make a difference in real-life emergency communications.

Steve Waterman, K4CJX
FEMA Region IV RECCWG AuxComm Committee Chair
DHS NCC SHARES Member (SHARES Winlink Network Administrator)
TEMA Comm Reserve
TN Homeland Sec. Dist. 5 Comm. Committee
Williamson County, TN Reserve
President, ARSFI (Winlink Development Team)

All about SHARES at HamVention

May 17, 2017 -- SHARES - Interoperable HF Emergency Communications: Friday, 9:15 to 10:15, Room 2.

Ross Merlin, WA2WDT, SHARES Program Manager, will moderate a forum on SHARES (SHAred RESources), a Federal government HF radio program for backup communications and interoperability among Federal agencies and Federally-affiliated entities that have a need to send or receive national security or emergency preparedness communications such as state agencies, county emergency management agencies, and critical infrastructure/key resources providers (telecommunications, energy, healthcare, transportation, etc.). This session will include both an introduction to SHARES for potential users and an open forum for audience members to discuss program issues with the SHARES Program Office staff. Merlin wrote the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG), which is widely used by public safety and emergency communications professionals across the country.

From the ARRL E-Letter, used with permission.

FEMA Forms Region IV AuxComm Working Group

Recently, the FEMA Region IV RECCWG members formed an auxiliary communications working group to improve the relationship between agencies at all levels and its auxiliary communications volunteers. Steve Waterman, K4CJX, a RECCWG member, was asked to chair this working group. Although the FEMA Region IV RECCWG working group has only recently formed, its members have already identified the following objectives:

  • Provide a model plan of action for agencies at all levels who wish to enhance their staff by adding non-paid, qualified auxiliary communications (AuxComm) volunteers. This would include mainly, but not exclusively, interested Amateur radio operators local to these civil organizations, and their critical infrastructure partners. It would include sample county and State operations plans that includes ongoing participation of these volunteers in a meaningful way.
  • Promote the education of auxiliary communication volunteers through inclusion of FEMA on-line NIMS courses, specific agency “101” training, and relevant classroom courses such as ICS-300, COML, the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) AuxComm course, and periodic exercises. The objective is to familiarize the auxiliary communications volunteer with the NIMS Incident Command System (ICS) process, and how the supported agency/office works within the ICS framework.
  • Define productive ways in which AuxComm volunteers may interact with agencies, including County “Reserve” groups, ARRL ARES groups, Ham Clubs, and others that can be brought into the methodology of the soliciting agency. In other words, define common processes that can be devised to enhance a smooth working relationship between AuxComm groups and the organizations they wish to support. Establishing and maintaining relationships between agency personnel and the AuxComm Volunteers is the key to effective support;
  • Define obligation and liability issues for both Agencies and AuxComm volunteers.
  • Define services needed by the agency wishing to utilize AuxComm support. There are several pathways in which these groups may be able to provide effective communications transport layers for these agencies where and when needed. Example: deploying the use of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Communications Coordinating Shared Resource program (NCC SHARES), MARS, use of the Amateur Radio Spectrum under Part 97, and the agency’s own FCC Public Safety spectrum, etc.
  • Determine an effective method of disseminating the findings and material resulting from the working group's efforts, which will benefit those who are not now deploying AuxComm personnel.
  • Seek out examples of successful statewide and regional amateur radio programs in order to incorporate best practices and improve standardization nationally.

This RECCWG Working Group has a diverse membership including representatives form State emergency agencies, ARRL leadership, FEMA Regional staff, AuxComm instructors, Statewide Interoperable Communications coordinators (SWIC0, I.T and Tribal representatives. As this FEMA Region IV RECCWG Working Group progresses, it will provide further information. If you would like information about this group or the FEMA Region IV RECCWG please contact Donnie Monette, [email protected].

Republished with permission from the FEMA Regional Emergency Communications Coordination Working Group (RECCWG) Newsletter.


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