It’s not so simple.
The other day I came across an interesting discussion on a ham radio internet forum about the pros and cons of amateurs getting involved with incident/disaster response organizations and whether or not assistance from amateurs is even wanted. Just as we’d expect from the internet, the back and forth got more intense than it needed to be. Public service is one of the hallmarks of amateur radio, so why is is this a controversial topic? There’s more to it than you might think. Before raising your hand to volunteer (or declining a request to get involved) carefully weigh some pros and cons.
Pulling two ways.
The discussion always seems to revolve around the idea that amateurs can do something for the organizations they serve, as if that’s the only thing that matters. There is also an expectation (perhaps unspoken) that participating in public service organizations will have some tangible benefit for the volunteer hams. This could possibly be in the form of training, equipment, or access to resources. Intangible benefits include: A sense of belonging, a feeling that one is making a positive contribution, etc. Lastly, there is the issue of operational security, which is a separate issue we’ll get to in a moment.
What do they want from you?
Public service for the sake of benefitting your community is and should be the primary motivation for volunteering. Before agreeing to participate, find out what exactly you will be doing.
What kind of time commitment is expected? How much of your own equipment will you have to provide? Some agencies are quite demanding. One amateur related a story about how his local volunteer response group handed out a list of specific equipment that each member was expected to have as a condition of being in the group. In total, it was over $1500 worth of stuff. The cost of admission is a deal-breaker for many. Other organizations will make promises to provide equipment and training that are dependent on budgets that are not approved yet. If the deal falls through, the volunteers are on their own.
Do they want hams at all, and if so, will they stand behind you?
That brings up another question: How much support do public service radio volunteers get from their sponsoring agencies, financial and otherwise? Is there money in the bank for this support, or is it contingent upon what is leftover after other needs are met? If sponsoring agencies agencies only offer tepid support or it seems they keep the volunteer hams around just for the heck of it, don’t expect them to fight for you if things get tough. You’re never more than one fiscal year or election away from being cut off.
There is one consistent theme I sense when talking about this with other amateurs: The amount of support ham public service volunteers get from government agencies and other disaster recovery organizations varies widely and can be unstable. In some areas, professional first responders do not want anything to do with radio amateurs. In other jurisdictions, organizations warmly embrace and generously support amateurs. The dynamic can change either way when new people take over or priorities change. Personalities matter, a lot.
A common concern radio amateurs express is that they want to volunteer for public service but do not want to get involved with politics. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with government agencies, you by default are involved with politics on some level. There is no way around this. Expecting to avoid politics when working with response agencies is like jumping into a pool and expecting not to get wet.
Operational security issues.
Those who served in the military or are involved in the prepper/survivalist movement are familiar with operational security (OPSEC). For the uninitiated, the short definition of operational security is don’t let anyone know what you have or what you’re doing.
OPSEC has real world implications for ordinary private citizens who volunteer with public service agencies. Years ago I received a very flattering letter from a prominent government disaster agency inviting me to join their group. It did not bother me that they obviously got my contact information from public FCC records. What did bother me, the huge red flag, was the multi-page application form where they asked for very detailed information about my radio equipment, power producing capabilities, off road vehicles, as well as to what extent I could be self-reliant in the event that supplies of food, water, and fuel were interrupted.
Handing the government a comprehensive inventory of everything I’ve got and being on some bureaucrat’s list as the guy with a lot of cool radios and a big generator is a huge OPSEC violation. It did not sit well with me at all so I ultimately decided to avoid the whole scene. It just smelled bad.
By joining any response group, especially one run by a government agency, understand you are giving up information about yourself that has the potential to be used against you later. I’m not trying to scare anyone away from what could be a great experience. I simply want radio amateurs to examine very closely what they disclose about themselves versus the benefits of being in the public service group. Think about what might be done with that information in the future. Be very discriminating.
Placing your own first.
Whenever there is a large scale disaster, the families of professional public service responders are given first priority for evacuation and shelter. The reason why is simple: Police officers, fire fighters, and others cannot and probably will not do their job without assurance that their loved ones are safe. After all, no one can realistically expect them to leave their own families in harm’s way while they rush to aid strangers.
As a non-professional public service volunteer, your family will not have the advantage of preferential treatment. If you decide to step up, make advance plans for the well being of your loved ones because when SHTF, you are not going to leave them in peril while you are deployed.
What we learned today.
- Do your due diligence: What do disaster agencies want from you, as in time expectations and equipment requirements?
- Ask questions about what you will get as a member of the group. It’s not entirely about what you can do for them. It’s a two-way street.
- The served organization should be supportive of the public service volunteers, both financially and otherwise. Do they even want you?
- If you join up, you will be involved in or effected by politics in some form. There is no avoiding this.
- Carefully consider the operational security implications (OPSEC) of your public service. How much do you want them to know?
- Plan in advance for the safety of your loved ones. No one will care more than you.