(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)
For my husband’s volunteer work with Civil Air Patrol, joint service MARS (military association radio system) and SHARES (a program of homeland security), we have quite a bit of copper wiring strung high in the birch and spruce trees of our property, as well as a large log periodic antenna attached about 70 feet up the metal power tower he built at the highest part of our land to hold the wind turbine, solar panels, and satellite dish.
Our location has several advantages for HF radio use. Obviously, we have no HOA out here in the boonies to put the kibosh on such installations! We also have little radio frequency interference that plagues urban and suburban transmissions and reception. Finally, Alaskans are so far from locations in the Lower 48 states, that we can hear many transmissions from the other volunteer locations that closer radio stations cannot. This may sound counterintuitive. The gist is that radio skywaves bounce off the ionosphere, and if two nodes are close, the transmission can “bounce” over those nearby, but will reach remote stations, like ours. This means that Alaska hams confer a benefit to others far away. For example, if a station wishes to report a wildfire, flood, avalanche, or lost hiker in a location without cell service, the closest other amateur radio operator stations might not receive the message, but a more remote station, like ours, could relay it to those near the epicenter of the problem who can respond. Then, we can relay a message to the radio operator on site.
As a result of these benefits, several of these national volunteer organizations have been interested to help Alaskans install exceptional communications infrastructure.
Almost every day, my husband checks into a national net populated by over 100 Civil Air Patrol communicators. Weekly, he checks in with smaller numbers of MARS and SHARES radio volunteers. In the past, his equipment was all analog voice technology, but many organizations are migrating to digital data systems. This innovation is analogous to sending a text instead of making a cell phone call and, similarly, requires less power and is less prone to transcription errors. A further advantage is that messages can be sent and received asynchronously and stored until pick up. The two parties do not have to be on the air at the same time. I might leave a message that my cabin is burning or that I am OK after an earthquake, even if the other party is not available to hear that message at 3 am, but will check their “ïn-box” when they wake up.
What does an amateur radio club do?
Through the national ARRL organization, radio club members volunteer at local events and search and rescue missions, as well as at expositions for emergency preparedness. In our vicinity, volunteers man observation posts along parade routes and races for joggers, bikers, skiers, snowmachiners, and dog mushers, especially at points that lack good cell reception.
To practice appropriate radio communications protocols, local clubs schedule regular radio meetings called “nets.” This is a time for people to call into a particular frequency from their radio and location, which could be home, car, or office. On our local net, the person who volunteers as net controller first asks if there is any emergency message for anyone to share. Then, he/she announces a backup frequency for anyone who cannot hear or be heard well followed by announcing the theme of that call. The net control then reads each call sign, followed by a pause to see if the licensee is in attendance. We respond with two brief comments: a) if we have any messages to pass along to the group and b) if we “are a theme.”
Examples of themes are whether we are located at a Red Cross or other emergency shelter, are using emergency power, are using a mobile unit (such as in a car), or are logging in through the digital packet data network. Such themes alert participants to options available during emergencies.
Despite, or perhaps because of our remote location, we are quite active in the group. My husband often serves as the backup net controller on a different frequency, because he can hear participants on our side of various mountains that the main net controller may not hear. He then relays those call signs to the net controller.
Note: One lesson for people new to ham radio is that this form of communication is not an appropriate medium for chit-chat between two friends. Everyone who has logged in can hear what anyone else is saying, and the expectation is that the radio medium is used for brief, focused, and important transmissions. If two people desire a private conversation, they can move to a different frequency (or perhaps use a phone).
Why join an amateur radio club?
For us, it was very important to join a local radio club for several reasons.
- a) Learn, develop, and maintain appropriate communication skills and protocols for radio communications when/where cell phone reception is not available.
- b) Meet a network of local people interested in emergency communications (even though we live a 20- minute flight to the closest of them). Our local net has about 150 names on the registry. Several have become close friends and mentors on many aspects of rural life, including animal husbandry, carpentry, cooking, hunting, fishing, weather spotting, and, of course radio troubleshooting.
- c) Because of his level of activity, my husband has received valuable gifts and bequests of radio equipment over the years, including an expensive ICOM radio, a 1,000-watt linear amplifier, and a mobile HF/VHF radio.
- d) Emergency contacts. Many amateur radio volunteers are well connected and active in synergistic emergency services, such as search and rescue operations, volunteer fire departments, county or municipal emergency services, Civil Air Patrol, Red Cross, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and other entities. Through these contacts, we have learned about the preparedness of our local and regional communities. Also, if we have a question, someone in our network knows whom to call.
- e) Emergency check-ups. With this emergency orientation, our local radio net friends check on each other after earthquakes and during wildfires, and communicate during nets about upcoming weather or sunspots, that can interfere with radio transmissions.
- f) SWAP and SHOP
Every Saturday morning, the local amateur radio clubs host a “swap and shop” where members request, trade or gift gear. For example, my husband recently received two 6 volt deep cycle, lead acid batteries (like those in a golf cart) that he will use as backup power for some of his radios.
Other Resources for Skills Development
A new innovation (about ten years ago) widely used by first responders and other emergency personnel is called ReadyOp. This is a subscription-based service. Utilizing smartphones, it connects parties both through the Internet and radio repeater networks. There are many situations in which the interoperability of both modes is very useful today. For example, an ambulance might leave a hospital area with cell service and head out to a rural home without it. Or, first responders descend on a community devastated by a tornado, hurricane, or flood, where cell infrastructure has been destroyed. Those on-site can utilize radio to call their home base in another region, which relies on a healthy cell network. A third use can be times when a government entity shuts down cell service in a particular location. This has occurred several times in recent years, for example, when police detected on social media that hundreds of teens planned a destructive gathering in specified location, they cut the cell signal to/from that area.
Because of the ubiquity of cell phones and attractive and intuitive user interface, ReadyOp has rapidly gained nationwide usage. This technology may strike young people as a more attractive reason to learn radio communication skills.
According to its website, “EchoLink software allows licensed Amateur Radio stations to communicate with one another over the Internet, using streaming-audio technology. The program allows worldwide connections to be made between stations, or from computer to station, greatly enhancing Amateur Radio’s communications capabilities. There are more than 350,000 validated users worldwide — in 159 of the world’s 193 nations — with about 6,000 online at any given time.” This is a free and easy way to develop and practice communications skills with other hams around the US and world.
In summary, walkie-talkies are a convenient aspect of our daily life on five acres and in the surrounding four or so miles of line-of sight transmissions. Joining local and national radio communications groups has allowed us to practice our emergency communications skills, find a kindred community of supportive individuals alert to broader emergency service skills, and learn about the emergency preparedness of our borough (county) in Alaska, and beyond.