Should You Get Involved With Public Service?

      13 Comments on Should You Get Involved With Public Service?

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.

public service

PHOTO COURTESY OF FEMA.GOV

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.

PUBLIC SERVICE

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

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. 

13 thoughts on “Should You Get Involved With Public Service?

  1. Don

    Hello Chris,
    I am a resident ham in a 55+ community. I am a volunteer EMCOMM operator. Some of the issues you brought up are new to me because of my lack of experience. I don’t expect anything from the community, and in return I don’t get much. The politics? I am finding that it is not as bothersome as the ego vs ego syndrome.
    Thanks for the food-for-thought information.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Don, as I mention in my article, situations will vary greatly. I don’t mean to portray EMCOMM groups in a negative light as they do provide a very valuable service and are usually a great experience for the volunteers. My purpose was to throw out some ideas amateurs should consider before signing up.

      Reply
  2. Vollie

    Chris,
    I was starting training with our county EOC for CERT. I was asked to sign a release of liability for the county
    in the event of activation. I walked away from the training. I will stay with USAF MARS and SHARES.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      You bring up a really good point that I should have included in my article: If a professional responder gets injured, they have insurance and workman’s comp and other resources. Who pays if a volunteer gets hurt while deployed? Volunteers should make sure they have relevant health care coverage because it’s highly unlikely the organization is going to help if you get injured.

      Reply
      1. randall krippner

        I can confirm that you will NOT be covered by the insurance of any organization (governmental or private) that you will will be working with. And in some cases your private insurance may not cover you as well. We volunteered to do communications for various events like bike races, marathons, etc. and in every case we had to sign waivers of liability before the event. And the county emergency management division we worked with made it abundantly clear that we were not covered.

        And in some jurisdictions you can even end up being sued simply for rendering first aid or CPR. Wisconsin passed a “good samaritan” law a few years ago that gives some protection from liability to people who render aid in an emergency, but that isn’t the case in every state.

        Before anyone gets involved in this make sure your insurance, both health and vehicle insurance, will cover you in this kind of a situation. And it’s a good idea to have some kind of umbrella liability insurance.

        Reply
        1. Chris Warren Post author

          I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak with authority, but it’s my understanding that organized groups have insurance to protect themselves from lawsuits but there is no coverage to help individual volunteers from damages. One also has to consider smaller losses that can be a real hassle but do not rise to the level of getting lawyers involved. For example, if you lose your $400 handheld radio while on an official deployment, do not expect the sponsoring group to make you whole.

          Again, I must stress that I do not want to spook anyone from participating in what can be rewarding and worthwhile community service. I simply want to radio amateurs to go into it with eyes wide open and know what to expect.

          Reply
  3. randall krippner

    I was in ARES for a few years (my wife still is). I dropped out because I couldn’t deal with the nonsense from the local government any longer. I won’t go into all the details but it seemed obvious to me that while they were verbally telling us they considered us important, they didn’t really mean it and even saw us as more of an annoyance than anything else.

    Don’t get me wrong. I still think amateur radio can have an important role in emergency communications, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from getting involved, but I find myself wondering if organizations like ARES are the best way to do it, at least in some local jurisdictions.

    A couple of things to add. You will have to go through a federal background check if you work with organizations like ARES or are associated with government emergency services. And depending on the jurisdiction you’re volunteering with you may have to go through a drug screen as well.

    Another issue is the amount of time involved. It seemed every year more training requirements were being added. I think I’ve done about 5 different FEMA courses on ICS and emergency response, plus storm spotter training, weather radar interpretation, traffic control, CPR and First Aid, then add in drills, training exercises, and, well, where do people get the time to do this stuff in the real world? If you want to do this be prepared to spend a significant amount of time to meet the requirements.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Randall reinforces what I was trying to express in my article: Your experience may vary greatly depending on where you are and who is running the show. Situations can change abruptly. For example, an effective, well-run disaster response group can be ruined by one single board member’s vote or budget decision. Likewise, floundering groups can be revived by the right person with vision.

      Reply
  4. ethrane

    An important topic, as most of us got into amateur radio to have fun, meet others and potentially help our community. The climate today is very different than when I was first licensed in the 70’s in JR high. The relationship between the first responders, police, sheriff and the “citizens” has become much more distant. Interaction with law enforcement is seen as something to be avoided and potentially dangerous independent of the nature. Community policing with the motto “Protect and Serve” has been replaced. This is not an anti-police comment. I think it is just a reflection of where we are, not as much how we got here.

    Communication technology has also improved dramatically in scope, function and reliability rendering the perceived need for amateurs much less acute. I think that amateur communications will only be valued when the infrastructure that supports advanced communication services is severely impaired, but for most people in the US, this thought is seen as very unlikely in the extreme, hence the lack of public interest.

    For these reasons, the nature of amateur radio has begun to shift in who it attracts and has given rise to this sort of article. Ten years ago this would be seen as paranoid, but in my experience hams are more likely to be people who do think a grid down situation is possible and worth prepping for. This is a shift. Yet, the strength and value of any communications tool is the number of nodes connected. One fax machine is worthless, but 100 are extremely valuable if no one else has one. The challenge is how to create infrastructure (hardware, communication plans, trust relationships) without compromising OPSEC? In the volunteer community of old, we were able to practice, meet others and work out how we will communicate. Today we have a number of people with the license, equipment and various skills but are all disconnected. I think there is a potential path forward. How many jobs have you done in the last year that you knew nothing about before and watched YouTube and were able to make it happen? I changed out the windshield wiper motor on my truck, installed new faucets in my bathrooms and began to MIG weld just from learning on line. On demand learning is a core part of our lives. Creating content aimed at these individuals and groups so that if the need arises they can quickly learn how to work together could be a game changer. I would be interested in others thoughts on this as well as links to resources if this has already been done.

    Chris, this is a great blog and one I anxiously look forward to your updates. Thanks for your efforts and outstanding content.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hello, and I apologize for the delayed reply. You obviously put a lot of effort into your reply and I’m grateful.

      A few points to touch on…You are correct that technology has changed the relationship of amateur radio to public service. Forty years ago, it was not unusual for the hams to have better comms equipment & capabilities than the local response agencies. Today, police and fire departments for the mot part have very modern digital systems that are very robust. It takes a lot to make them fail, so having ham radio as a “spare tire” is not as big of a deal as it used to be.

      Second, I’m not aware of any data on how many people are into ham radio for prepping/survival purposes and who is doing it because it’s a fun hobby, but going by reader comments and emails to this website, and my conversations with other hams, survivalists are a huge part of the picture, certainly more than they were a decade or two ago. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, Off Grid Ham is not a “survivalist blog”, but I am well aware that those folks account for a significant portion of my readership. One of the goals of this blog is to show non-survivalists that amateur radio has a very practical purpose beyond just being a fun hobby.

      Thanks again for your detailed comments. I’m glad to hear you enjoy OGH and hope you’ll invite others to stop by.

      Reply
  5. Mike, KE0GZT EN34

    Don’t know how I missed this post, Chris. And the comments are great. Many points to ponder… and thanks for raising the issues. I’m focused on honing my basic skills and getting appropriate equipment so I can make connections when I need to… and that’s a lot of moving parts to coordinate. OGH is a great source of information. Keep up the great work… much appreciated.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *