Turn Thinking Into Doing (But Do Some Actual Thinking First).

It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

It’s been quite a summer! Flooding, extreme heat, wild fires, and (at this writing) a hurricane just tore up the Western USA and another storm is churning in the Gulf of Mexico. Every time a string of disasters happen, there is increased chatter of how amateur radio can be useful for emergency communications. More anecdotally, Off Grid Ham site traffic bumps up around these incidents. Many hams who consider themselves  just hobbyists start realizing their hobby also has a very practical aspect. It therefore seems disasters get people thinking. When applying amateur radio to disaster & emergency communications, it’s important to turn thinking into doing.

Step one: Define your goals.

Before you collect or set up any communications apparatus, create a concise, specific list of goals your off grid radio system should achieve. This part of planning is often skipped over because it’s not much fun! Yes I get it: Everybody loves the excitement of ordering gear on line and assembling what they believe will be a kick ass station. But if you don’t know what you intend to accomplish with the equipment, the entire plan will fail (because you never really had a plan in the first place). emergency communications

Examples of goals:

  • Comms for a loosely organized local group, such as a few neighbors who live within a small area. emergency communications
  • Communicate with a relative in a distant city.
  • Civilians coordinating with government officials & disaster response agencies.
  • Coordinating with non-government organizations: Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc.
  • Monitoring event-related radio traffic: Fire, police, etc.
  • Provide communications within private property: Family farm, retreat location, hunters/fishermen, etc.

Many operators will have overlapping goals. This is fine, but do try to keep your goals as  focused as possible. Going with an “all of the above” approach means your plan and equipment needs will be excessively complex. If your list of goals is long, take a moment to be very discriminating and see if something can be edited out. It’s not realistic to be “ready for anything” so be ready for what it most likely.  Your budget & skills will be a factor in your goal setting as well. emergency communications

Step two: Define your scenario.

Defining a preparedness scenario is an extension of what we reviewed in step one. It’s a simple mental exercise: What exactly are you preparing for? The person who just wants to participate in a neighborhood watch group is going to have much different needs than the person who is preparing for a doomsday societal collapse.

Secondly, how will you use your setup? Is it going to be a fixed, home-based station? A mobile rig in a car? Some sort of “go bag/box”? Like in the previous step, your format and defined scenario will drive what kind of equipment you will need.

Step three: Take inventory.

Once you have a clear vision of your goals and know what scenarios you’re preparing for, it’s time for the fun part: Buying stuff!  Before you whip out the credit card, take inventory of what you already have and see how much of it can be used for your application. If you’re a newer ham, this may be easy because  you likely don’t have a lot of stuff laying around. For those of us who have been hamming for decades, well, we probably have gear that we forgot about. I personally own enough ham equipment to fill a decent sized truck. I speak from experience when I say it really sucks to buy something only to find out a short while later that you already had one!

Step four: Putting it all together.

This is where we go from conception to actual product. Assemble your station in the chosen format (permanent, go bag, etc.). At this point do not obsess over getting every last detail perfected. The main purpose of this step is to get a working prototype. The details can be sorted out later.

My first effort at an EMCOMM go box years ago seemed like a good idea at the time, but I should have seen the disaster coming. I had no plan or purpose. I made a box out of cheap press wood and filled it with whatever old gear I had laying around. The empty box itself was already way too heavy, and with all the stuff I filled it with it became an unwieldy cumbersome mess. I never deployed it even once. In the end, I pulled all the gear out, then cut the press wood box up and tossed it in the trash. I’d never been so disappointed in a project and to this day it is my greatest failure.

Step five: The “shakedown cruise”.

I hope you did not plan on assembling an off grid radio station and then just stash it in a closet somewhere, to be taken out only in an emergency. It’s a huge mistake, It’s really important to take your new setup out and use it under conditions you would anticipate according to your plan.

This is where you identify and correct deficiencies and perfect the details. The reason I suggest you wait until this step to do your fine tuning is because things always look good “on paper” and on your bench at home. When you take your station out into the “real world” you will almost certainly find out that changes need to be made. Once you deploy your system in a live event you may not have the time or the means to correct shortcomings.

Ongoing practice & training will be necessary to keep your skills sharp. If the first time you use your off grid setup is when SHTF, you’re already in huge trouble. Don’t be the guy or girl who takes their radios out for a spin once a year for Field Day and calls it good.

Volunteering for emergency communications groups.

Volunteering for an emergency communications group seems like a great idea, right? You can glean insight for your own EMCOMM planning, get some practice, and meet like minded folks. For the most part volunteering is a great idea. But volunteering comes with some important considerations. So important, in fact, that there is an entire Off Grid Ham article discussing the ramifications. I strongly suggest you read the article before jumping into the volunteer pool. Also, here is a great article about operational security (OPSEC).

Pulling it all together. emergency communications

If your current off grid radio setup is not meeting your needs, it may be because you didn’t plan it right in the first place. It’s never too late to reverse course! Those who enjoy ham radio only as a fun hobby don’t need to plan so much; just go with whatever moves you. But hams who want their radios for emergency communications will need to be more thoughtful.

Planning may not feel like you’re not “doing anything” but it is an essential precursor to having effective off grid radio communications.

3 thoughts on “Turn Thinking Into Doing (But Do Some Actual Thinking First).

  1. randall krippner

    Planning and practice are essential. Without both not only can you forget necessary materials and equipment, you, or more importantly others who may need to know how to use that equipment, won’t know what to do with it, and in the case of organizations may even forget the stuff even exists. When I was ARES the county emergency office director told me I needed to go to the local hospital and program their backup ham radio equipment with new repeater frequencies. I didn’t even know the hospital had equipment and I was supposed to be the chief radio officer. It wasn’t documented anywhere that I was able to find. At the hospital they didn’t know anything about it either. Finally someone tracked down a maintenance person who remembered someone putting in some radio equipment years before. I found a complete iCom station tucked away in a closet somewhere. One of the sheriff’s deputies asked me if I could take a look at their emergency trailer because they had all this radio gear in it that no one knew how to use. They had a full load of HF, VHF and UHF amateur radio gear in there that hadn’t been touched since it was installed and no one was licensed for or knew how to use. Document everything, make check lists, and practice, practice, practice.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      I’ll bet that neither the hospital nor the sheriff’s department ever asked for the ham gear in the first place. It was probably donated, or the pet project of some influential person, or maybe they had some extra grant money. In any case there was an implied or direct obligation to include it in the initial build, and after that no one cared.

      Leadership changes, priorities change, and of course personalities are in the mix too.

      Placing ham equipment in an obscure corner of a hospital or in a cop trailer is no different than buying a radio, stashing it in your basement, and calling that “preparedness”.

      1. randall krippner

        You’re exactly right, Chris. That’s what happened. Someone in administration at the hospital at the time knew someone who was in the local ARES group back then, thought it was a good idea, got a grant to buy the equipment, and after it was put in apparently that was the last time it was ever used. The ARES group at the time never documented it, never included it in training or testing and eventually everyone involved moved on and only the county EC head remembered it was even there. I ran into that exact same situation with three different organizations when I was with ARES, the hospital, sheriff’s department and with a state medical facility. I’ve been out of ARES for like 5 or 6 years now and I suspect that by now it’s back to the same situation it was before.

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