A discussion on the National EMS Managers Association list has prompted me to interject my opinion on the topic of amateur radio operators and their use in emergency communication during civil emergencies.
If you are not following the NEMSMA list then you are missing out on the discussions that the top managers in EMS are having.
The thread started with a question of how to gather the proper information during a medical emergency and transmit the information back to the EOC or dispatch center. One person stated the obvious. Why not just call 911 on a cell phone? Often this is an acceptable answer, but in the case of hurricanes, tornadoes and other civil emergencies, where cell towers are down how will the public be able to call for help when the entire 911 system (based on phone communications) is down?
The 47 CFR part 97 Sub part E (401-407) deals with Providing Emergency Communications. 47 CFR Part 97.407 deals with Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service known as RACES. They operate under the direction of the local emergency management and the individual amateur radio operators need to be registered with a civil defense organization.
Is amateur radio still a valuable asset to Emergency Management? I believe that if used correctly they can be valuable. The advent of the advanced communication systems we have still have their faults. Cell towers need power to provide assistance. The digital trunked radio systems still require power (and the towers need to be still standing) to work, even the back up generators can fail. Amateur radio operators that are interested in emergency communication usually have portable set-ups and do not need to rely on the power grid to operate. They can be used to transmit messages to the EOC and other field stations.
In order to use them effectively you need to have a well trained group of dedicated volunteer operators and they need to be included in the drills run by the Department of Emergency Management.
In addition to use for communications, amateur radio operators also provide important information to the National Weather Service as storm spotters.
Many of the modern methods of communication have rendered techniques used by amateur radio operators obsolete for day to day communications. They can still be used effectively, when you understand their abilities and limitations.
I am an amateur radio operator. I do not belong to a RACES or ARES organization, I am a firefighter/paramedic and I would be called in to work if there was a civil emergency so I could not participate in any of those organizations.
We might not need all our tools in the tool box every day. Discarding tools considered obsolete would be foolish. I haven’t used an OB kit in years, but it is the best tool that will work when I have a field delivery.