I Have a Dream…

Since becoming a ham, I’ve learned a lot about emergency management and the role of Amateur Radio when everything else fails.  Most people don’t realize that when there’s a flood, a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake or any other type of natural disaster, one of the most fragile and hardest-hit pieces of a city’s backbone is the communications infrastructure.  For those who remember the Nisqually Earthquake a decade ago, try to remember what you did as soon as the shaking stopped.  I’m willing to bet that most of you who had cell phones (they weren’t quite so ubiquitous back then) probably immediately called someone to discuss what just happened.  I know I did!  Of course when a million or so others in the area have the same idea it brings down the cellular communications system pretty quickly.  Especially since the system was already operating with reduced capacity because of the power outages to cell towers and damaged fiber and copper lines.  The reality is that when very big, very bad things happen, commercial communications infrastructure usually crumbles.  At least for a while.

In the early days of Amateur Radio, the emphasis of the hobby was on experimentation and discovery.  Communicating by radio waves was still a very new concept and anyone with access to some very basic materials could build a simple receiver, transmitter or antenna, maybe tweak the design a little here and there to see what happens and actually have a hand in the discoveries and advancements that have made radio communications into what they are today.

In today’s Amateur Radio, experimentation still plays a key role.  However, the experimentation is taking place more and more in the non-radio-propagation aspects of the hobby.  Most people have pretty much got a handle on how radio communication works and aren’t going to be experimenting on more efficient amplifiers or filters in their home ham shack.  However, we’ve got a whole host of relatively new technologies in the hobby that are still ripe for experimentation and advancement.  For example, D-Star digital communications over the same old radio waves we’ve always used for analog communications are an exciting area of experimentation and development.  D-Rats is a software program developed by a ham that, when connected to a D-Star radio, will allow the transfer of instant messages, binary files, images or emails without any dependency on commercial infrastructure.

As experimentation sort of stepped back in the Amateur Radio lineup, Emergency Communications stepped forward.  Hams are known for their independent, self-reliant personalities.  One of the draws of radio communications is the fact that they’re not dependent on an infrastructure that repeatedly shows how fragile it is, especially when we need it most as in the aftermath of an emergency.

I have a dream for this new club and it’s perfectly in line with the Emergency Communications emphasis that the radio hobby has today:

In the event of an emergency, the Tukwila Office of Emergency Management is going to need people in the field with whom they can communicate to deal with a host of problems.  There may be gas leaks, downed power lines, trees blocking roads, flooded roads and the communications infrastructure will most likely be down as well.  Imagine having residents scattered throughout the city who have their own radio equipment, the operation of which they’ve mastered, and who can report these problems to those who can do something about them.  They’ve trained with the city so they know what frequencies to use, who is in charge, who to report to, the format of messages, the routine of the meetings that will be taking place to get things done.  Also imagine that these people are some of the best-prepared to meet their own family’s needs in an emergency so they won’t be in need of assistance, but will be able to provide assistance to those who may be less prepared.

Let’s further imagine that our many businesses in Tukwila have invested in training and equipment to be able to join the radio nets that will be activated after an emergency.  In this way, the city can get reports of damage and injuries at Westfield Shopping Mall or the Museum of Flight or any of the other businesses in the City.  The City can communicate important information to the businesses so the businesses can make announcements to their customers and keep them informed.  Everyone has the information they need to understand their options and what to do next.

But how do we convince people to buy equipment, train for emergencies, study for exams, practice generating and passing messages using standard government forms and procedures?  To be honest, it doesn’t sound like much fun.  And it’s not MEANT to be particularly fun.  It’s meant to be a vital resource to our communities and it’s one of the reasons the FCC allows us to use a relatively large portion of the radio spectrum for free when they could be selling it to cell phone carriers for billions of dollars (yes, BILLIONS).  The FUN part comes in everything ELSE you can do with those frequencies.  Here are a few examples:

  • Build an antenna with your child in about 30 minutes at a cost of about $25.  Then put the microphone in their hands and talk to someone thousands of miles away using something that they built.  Re-use the antenna for the rest of your life.  A small investment indeed!
  • Gather with your radio club friends for conferences, swap meets, brag about the great deal you got on a great used radio, sell an old radio you don’t use anymore so that another ham can benefit from it too.
  • Take your radio with you on vacation.  Talk with the local hams on the local repeater, get the scoop on the best restaurants or festivals happening while you’re there.  Meet the local ham for coffee and a face-to-face chat.  A ham radio license puts you in a group of instant acquaintances and, sometimes, instant lifelong friends.
  • Put your operator skills to the test by participating in one of the dozens of contests scheduled each year.  Fight for most contacts, most states contacted, most counties, most nations contacted and other criteria.  Then brag about your score on the weekly social net you join on the local radio repeater.
  • Go “old school” and buy a morse code key or paddle (or better, build one).  Tap out the “dits” and “dahs” to communicate with someone who could be thousands of miles away doing the same thing on a radio the size of a tuna can running on a 9v battery.  Buy an inexpensive kit of materials and build your own “Tuna Tin 2″ radio with only basic skills.
  • Hook an old radio with a wire for an antenna to an old computer and carry out instant messaging sessions with dozens of other hams around the world doing the same thing at any given time.  Find out what’s news in Turkey, Russia, Brazil or chat with live-aboard sailers as they sail the Caribbean.  Amateur Radio is the best social tool ever.  If you reach someone on the radio, you already have ONE thing in common to talk about.  It’s a start!

So there’s my dream.  To have a great collection of residents and business partners in the City of Tukwila work together with the local Emergency Management Office to develop an emergency communications plan, train for it and drill on it until it’s stuck in our heads for life.  To maintain interest in radio between emergencies, the hobby side kicks in with fun activities, social potential, friendly competition and the all important “cool toy” aspect.  I hope some of you join us on this adventure!

Mark Lium (N7WSU)
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