Amateur Radio Emergency Communications

Let’s face it, the use of amateur radio for emergency communications in Illinois has been lacking for a long time. Granted small steps have been made to move things along, however those minor accomplishments are typically focused at the higher decision levels and leaves the local level organization falling short.

For instance a State level communication plan is great, but if there are no plans at the district or local levels the state-wide plan becomes pointless. Not to mention the state-wide plan has limited distribution so unless you are part of the leadership structure, the boots-on-the ground hams are not even aware it exists.

More of an emphasis needs to be placed on developing and organizing the local levels. It is quite easy for the top level leadership to say that the local Emergency Coordinators are responsible for creating their own emergency communication plans, but how many actually do that?  Since information sharing is quite scarce within the Illinois ARES community it is difficult to ascertain how many local emergency communication plans actually exist but if one were to speculate that number could be less than a handful.

To be pragmatic, not everyone possesses the skill or ability to develop a comprehensive emergency communication plan or team manual. Experience has shown that amateur radio operators are more operations centric leaving the administrative tasks to go by the wayside.

The best approach to solve this common problem would require a change in our methodology. Instead of trying to build a viable ARES program from the top down. Concentrate on building the foundation at the local levels. It is at the local level where all operations start. We need to develop and standardized a plan or manual that the local levels can use as a template. All of the general information would remain the same for the sake of continuity across the board, and then all the local level leaders would have to do is to insert locale specific information such as repeater frequencies as well as policies or procedures unique to the local level team or group.

Once the local plans have been developed, they need to be shared as widely as possible. This information sharing could be of great benefit to others. One group may perform a task that another group may not have thought of.  The sharing of ideas benefits us all.

Another change in methodology that should occur is how the teams or groups are identified and structured as well as the leadership for those areas are selected.  Out of the 102 counties in the state of Illinois, at best there are probably only a handful of teams that could be considered operational. For areas that lack EmComm/ARES activity, we need to consider the creation of multi-county teams.  This approach could help expand emergency communication capabilities. As a scenario let’s say we have a county that has a good ARES presence yet the adjacent counties are lacking. The core county would have a local EC and each of the adjacent counties could have Assistant Emergency Coordinators to manage, recruit and administer the program. Should an adjacent county grow in size and activity, then that county could then branch off and become a separate entity with its own Emergency Coordinator.

As for the local level leadership selection process a person should not be appointed to these positions simply because they are the only person willing to do the fill the position. If a person is willing to fill a local level leadership position, they must have some clearly defined goals of what they want to achieve. A timeline must also be set for each of the goals with follow up from the next higher leadership level to ensure the goals are being met. When a person is initially appointed to a local level leadership position, it would be best to allow them to establish their first year goals. Those goals could be as simple as:

  1. Recruit 8-10 members for the team.
  2. Develop a basic operations manual.
  3. Conduct one (1) emergency communications exercise or drill.
    1. This would be at the local level and not associated with any other exercise or ham function.

The next higher leadership level should plan on doing a six-month follow up to see how well the goals are being met and provide guidance as necessary. If at the end of the year the goals have not been met, then recruitment of a new local level leader should be sought.

As for the middle level leadership (district), so often those positions are filled simply as a place holder. How many people can say they have actually met their District Emergency Coordinator face to face? How many people even know the name of their DEC?

If a DEC has not visited every county and/or team at least once per year, they are not doing the job they were appointed to do. If a DEC has not compiled all of the local emergency plans and developed a district emergency plan, they are not doing the job they were appointed to do.

Like the local level leadership, the district level must set forth goals and objectives and those objectives must be reviewed to ascertain if the program is growing as it should. The district level should be proactive in developing the programs within their respective districts.

Many other ideas come to mind on how to enhance, expand and improve emergency communication programs within the state of Illinois. By starting with the aforementioned ideas could help build the foundation required for progress.

The purpose of this article is not to discredit any of the dedicated individuals who are trying to make a difference and promote the capabilities of amateur radio for emergency communication utilization. The purpose is to shed some light on the situation and hopefully enlighten radio operators in general how we can progress towards making amateur radio emergency communications a more viable asset in our state.