Saturday, 05 November, 2005

Annual Emergency Exercise

Ham radio is a hobby that has something for almost anybody.  Some people like talking with local friends while commuting and others like working the high frequency bands to talk with people all over the world.  There are those for whom the attraction is all in the hardware--fiddling with the radios--and they talk on the radio just enough to confirm that their creations work.  There are contests, different operating modes, antennas to build, and special events to participate in.

One of the purposes of the amateur radio service, as laid out by the forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission, is to provide a ready source of trained operators with their own equipment who can provide emergency communications in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.  Hams from all over the country provided assistance in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita--providing emergency, priority, and health and welfare traffic in the aftermath of those storms.  Ham radio was the only reliable form of communications in large parts of rural Texas for weeks after Rita come through.  Local police and fire communications systems, cell phone towers, and standard telephones were done for extended periods.  Within hours of the storm's passing, there were amateurs in the affected areas setting up communications systems at dispatch centers and riding in emergency vehicles.

The Amateur Radio Relay League formalizes the emergency services in ARES--the Amateur Radio Emergency Service.  ARES members attend formal and informal training sessions to learn emergency procedures and to practice operating in emergency situations.  We are "first responders," who work closely with local agencies (cities and counties) to help with communications in the event of an emergency.  On an annual basis we get together with other groups, sometimes with our served agencies, and hold a drill:  a simulated emergency test, or SET.

Today's SET was a simulated weather event, with heavy thunderstorms and tornadoes in the area.  This time I served as the backup net control operator, helping to pass traffic among the many served agencies (county command post, city command posts, and two hospitals) while monitoring the storm spotters' frequency in order to notify the net of weather events.  It sounds like a bunch of old guys playing a silly game, but it's actually a pretty good simulation.  We had to do something like this for real just a few months back when we thought Rita would be making its way through Central Texas.  The beauty of the drill is that we can work out kinks in our equipment and simulate things that might happen, like one of the command posts being taken out or our primary communications repeater going silent.

The drill went from 8:00 until 11:30 in the morning, and then we headed out to our leader's house for food and drinks and a short critique of the exercise.  All in all it was an interesting and informative way to spend a Saturday morning.