Monthly Archive for January, 2010

Hams in Haiti

IEEE Spectrum magazine has a great article available online about the success of ham radio operations in Haiti. The article comes to us thanks to the the ARRL’s media and PR manager Allen Pitts, WiAGP. The photo here is from the ARRL and appeared in the IEEE Spectrum article.

The Haitian earthquake presented unique challenges to the deployment of international amateur radio resources. Amateur radio communities in many countries will be looking at the Haitian experience for guidance on how to grow their own emergency response capabilities.

As we all know (or should know), even in the midst of the devastation that struck Haiti, nobody can just walk into another country and put on their highway safety vest declaring that they’re here to help. In the case of Haiti, the situation on the ground remains way too volatile and unsafe. Even helping agencies are limiting who they send and to where.  Civil (or in some cases military) government still functions in these situations. Authority needs to be consulted and permissions secured. Agreements need to be negotiated. This is especially true in Haiti where there isn’t a robust native amateur radio community and a total lack of equipment and infrastructure organizations like Radio Amateurs of Canada or the ARRL existed before the disaster.

So what can we do here at home? Well I’m well on my way to creating a three-station two-meter network that fits into one medium-large size tool box. Containing older radios and one W/T that runs on AA batteries I’m making a shopping list of accessories to buy when I go to Dayton this year. Even if I never have to pull the box out of the basement during an emergency, it will come in handy at Field Day operations and other special events.

Oh yeah. The other thing you can do is join RAC and ARES right now. Get involved and make a positive contribution.

Repeaters activated in Haiti and Dominican Republic

The ARRL Letter includes information that members of the Radio Club Doninicano – the Dominican Republic’s IARU member-society – and Union Dominicana de Radio Aficionados (UDRA) have been able to install two VHF repeaters – one in the Dominican Republic border town of Jumani and another in Port-au-Prince. These repeaters are being used by the Red Cross and civil defense authorities since, until just recently, there has been no other way to communicate except by these amateur radio repeaters. A station at the US embassy in Haiti could not be activated.

The security situation within Haiti remains too uncertain for any wide-spread deployment of amateur radio operators and equipment. It appears that as the domestic situation stabilizes there will be greater need for amateur radio in Haiti in the immediate future and for months, perhaps years to come.

Haiti update

VA3QV runs a terrific blog at The Amateur Radio World of VA3QV.

His last post included some updated information on the situation in Haiti. Here’s the link: VA3QV.

Free online magazine

The new issue of WorldRadio Online magazine is available as a free PDF download. This is a great service from the good folks at CQ Magazine and a great way to get the latest information and commentary about amateur radio topics of interest.

BTW Haiti was hit by another 6+ magnitude earthquake this morning. There’s been some online chatter about why Amateur Radio isn’t being used by the helping agencies who are on the ground and the answers are obvious:

  1. The levels of safety and security are still too low to allow wide-spread influx of volunteers;
  2. The helping agencies are overwhelmed and understaffed and any additional burden of non-essential staff is unwarranted;
  3. Broken as it may be, Haiti is still ruled by the Haitians. Like it or not, we can’t just descend on Haiti without some official process and right now, there is none;
  4. Without sufficient training and an ability to feed and shelter volunteers, any amateur radio involvement at this time would be an unnecessary burden;
  5. Our time to help will come. There’s lots to be done and amateur radio will play an important supportive role in the near future. We need to be making preparations and growing our memberships in serving organizations such as ARES.

The Tragedy of Haiti…

And the folly of the Ontario government:

QRZ.COM shows that there were only seven licensed ham radio operators listed as residing in Haiti in 2009. Of that number, only two have been reported heard on the international amateur radio emergency aid shortwave networks. In other words, there is no wide-spread corps of trained and equipped amateur radio volunteers living in Haiti.

Fortunately, at least one cellular telephone company’s radio towers are reported to have survived mainly intact after the 7.0 earthquake. My guess is these towers were cemented on sturdy ground pads. Any cell tower mounted on any less substantial structure, including buildings of all types, likely failed due to mechanical breakage at the moment of impact. Any surviving cell systems would be extremely compromised due to huge surges in usage and failing back-up power supplies over the next 24 to 72 hours. Some satellite cellphones worked and, of course, these days because there was some cellular service that survived we got Tweets (from Twitter) and email and Facebook postings. But these communications channels are fragile and often the communications are erroneous and inaccurate.

Right now, as aid piles up at the U.S.-military run airport in Port-au-Prince there’s little understanding of the situation in country. We know that many cities are lying in ruin but we don’t know how bad (or good) the situation is on the ground. There is no way for non-governmental agencies to reach their workers. Families frantic with worry have no way of directly reaching their surviving relatives. Red Cross evacuation centres have yet to be set up and it’s here where the vast majority of registration of displaced persons takes place. (The Red Cross has the experience and infra-structure to carry out their daunting task of registering hundreds of thousands of people.) I could go on about what’s not happening but you get the point.

So what could have happened if there had been a vibrant and active amateur radio community in Haiti? In the midst of disasters, the people affected universally create their own structure. They pull each other out of rubble. They setup soup kitchens. They find ways to feed and care for the afflicted. They build structures and they wait for help. Experts say this is a way that people find meaning in their broken lives.

Please forgive me, but I’m going to be direct here. If there was a healthy active amateur radio community some of its members would have survived the disaster. Once their basic needs of survival, shelter, food and water have been met, many will also want to help their stricken communities. We’ve seen this scenario before during the Asian tsunami, Katrina and even the China earthquake last year when amateur radio operators helped out.

So how do relatively untrained hams help? Well almost all amateur radio equipment does (or can be quickly modified) to operate on 12-volts direct current. In Haiti, I bet you can find working 12-volt batteries in destroyed vehicles everywhere. A hand-held walkie-talkie type radio is capable of transmitting a signal over distances up to 20 miles and will work on a 12-volt battery for several days before it’s necessary to replace (or recharge using a generator) the battery. Shortwave equipment capable of transmitting signals over hilly and mountainous terrain around the country or around the world is owned by many (perhaps most) amateur radio operators. Most of this equipment can again run off 12-volt supplies and much of this equipment is smaller than a toaster oven. It’s portable and doesn’t require any better antenna than 60 feet of wire hung in a tree.

As trained amateur radio operators set-up ham radio emergency traffic networks starting with the non-governmental agencies like the Red Cross (which Canadian hams have a formal agreement to help in times of need) or the Salvation Army (which already runs an international emergency ham radio network called  SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network), the non-trained volunteers can be accommodated and welcomed into the network. These volunteers are already on the air in their own affected communities and are getting training on-the-job as they participate in helping their own communities rebuild. (The Amateur Radio Emergency Service in both the U.S. and Canada provides ongoing training and is a very popular aspect of amateur radio.) As the situation stabilizes, more amateur radio networks can be setup linking hospitals, ambulance and fire stations, police detachments, civic authorities (all of which have had catastrophic communications failure)  and other key agencies including the Red Cross evacuation and registration centres.

The amateur radio networks can exist for weeks without any outside aid or attention. The networks are flexible in that any licensed ham can participate. They are not dependent on anything but a cadre of large numbers of volunteers able to help.

In Haiti, as I said, there were seven hams registered in online documentation. Of that number, two, one of which was with a religious group serving the people of Haiti, got on the air. Amateurs from other countries have attempted to enter Haiti but were turned back because the situation is still too unstable. And so we are left waiting for the “authorities” to reach the afflicted in country.

What could happen if a similar disaster were to strike, let’s say, southern Ontario? How about a big, big ice storm? How about a nuclear meltdown (Chernobyl)? The list goes on.

In Ontario, we have around 5,000 licensed hams. Let’s say half of that number are active. Maybe all they do is talk on their two-way radios on the way to work? Maybe they get on when there’s special event or a contest (there are contests every weekend)? The point is they already live here. They have sophisticated equipment that’s simple to run. They can help provide communications infrastructure where none exists.

Our sister association, the American Radio Relay League representing over 250,000 U.S. hams, had a slogan they use to describe how amateur radio helps. It was “WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS.” That says it all. When thousands of buildings fall down, when the death toll may exceed 100,000, when government and ALL ELSE FAILS the one thing that’s left is the survivors. Some of those survivors here in Ontario will be amateur radio operators who, once they’ve met their own basic needs, will be ready to help and save lives.

So why the folly of Ontario government?

Because the Ontario government, in its wisdom has banned the use of all hand-held devices while driving. This is a good thing and we approve of it.  The enforcement section of Bill 118 begins in February. We believe Bill 118 will make our roads safer.  Canadian-licensed amateur radio operators have a three-year time-limited exception. (And rightfully so. There is no evidence whatsoever that the use of a two-way radio in anyway is a distraction in the same way as using a cellular telephone. Many US states and Canadian provinces have granted blanked exemptions to their amateur radio communities.)

In order to encourage the growth of amateur radio in Ontario and to assist the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, the exemption on the use of amateur radio use of hand-held microphones should be made permanent. Now that we have a new minister of transportation in Ontario (as of yesterday), we see an opportunity for the Ontario government to do the right thing.

Why ARES needs you and you need ARES

The disaster unfolding in Haiti has just begun. Tuesday’s devastating earthquake was only the beginning of the misery that will befall the Haitian nation over the next months and years. As vice-president of public relations for Radio Amateurs of Canada I’ve been busy keeping in touch with other amateur radio and non-governmental agencies here in Canada and internationally who are involved in Haiti. There’s lots happening behind the scenes and I trust we’ll be hearing a lot more about amateur radio involvement in the coming days and weeks.

I’m learning lots of lessons that I’d like to share some of my thoughts:

  1. Disasters come in many forms and we are not immune. It, whatever it is, could happen here tomorrow;
  2. When it happens here we need to be absolutely self-sufficient for at least 72 hours;
  3. Before it happens here we need to have developed some sort of a command structure* and loose infrastructure of participants;
  4. As it happens here we need to be capable of deploying ourselves rapidly and in an organized fashion;
  5. Deployment means we need to be able to support ourselves in the field and create a working radio network that serves those afflicted;
  6. Supporting ourselves includes food, water, shelter and, of course, equipment**. Safety of personnel must remain a top priority***;
  7. Equipment includes a flashlight, GPS hand unit, multi-tool, 2-meter rig (or dual-band) and 12-volt power plug, and maybe an HF rig****;
  8. Prior to any of these plans we need a competent leadership that can work with non-governmental agencies, the military and civil authorities*****;
  9. We also need lots and lots of semi-trained and willing hams. This is not a time for on-the-job training;
  10. To accomplish the above we need to join the Amateur Radio Emergency Service in our local communities today.

* This is where ARES comes in. Like it or not, it’s the best initiative we have.

** I’ve got a couple of 2-meter rigs sitting around. I’m going out today to buy a tool box to start a “GO” kit.

*** Many well-intentioned hams want to go to Haiti to help but right now the country is not safe enough.

**** Rural Haiti is semi-mountainous. VHF/UHF may not work outside of the cities. HF maybe needed.

***** Well-meaning but unknown groups aren’t likely to be included in the official relief effort.

So to conclude: I am a member of my local ARES group. But I’ve been a non-participating member for some years not. Back in the “old days” I was an active ARES member and was a volunteer with Emergency Measures Ontario. The Haitian disaster reminds me of just how much I need to be an active ARES member and how much ARES needs amateurs just like me. If you want to help out during times of need, you can start today by joining your local ARES group. They’d love to hear from you.

RAC issues official bulletin to all Canadian amateurs regarding Haiti earthquake

On Tuesday, January 12 at 4:53 PM, Haiti time (2153) UTC a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit 15 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. Communications in and out of Haiti have been disrupted.
The RAC requests that all Canadian Hams  be aware  of the emergency operations on the following frequencies: 7.045 3.720 MHz (IARU Region 2 Nets), 14.265, 7.265 and 3.977 MHz (SATERN Nets), and 14.300 MHz (Intercontinental Assistance and Traffic Net). The International Radio Emergency Support Coalition (IRESC) is also active on EchoLink node 278173.
This official bulletin is being sent out to all RAC members and is republished here for all members and non-members.

Sheridan students in the news

Getting amateur radio into the mainstream news during ongoing news events such as the Haitian earthquake has never been an easy job. And while we don’t want to take advantage from someone else’s misery, we do have a legitimate story to tell about volunteerism and technology and how ordinary citizens can make a tremendous difference to alleviating the pain and suffering of their friends and neighbours.

The Emergency Management program at the GTA’s Sheridan College was featured in an article in Metronews.ca Toronto on Tuesday preceding the disaster in Haiti by a few hours. While there wasn’t a mention of ham radio, Nigel Johnson, G4AJQ/VE3ID, a professor at the college says some of the students are studying for the amateur radio ticket.

If you or your club is participating in a newsworthy event, we’d encourage you to share it with your local media (and do so promptly as the activity is happening or better still prior to any special event. News ages quickly. Old news is called history and is of no interest to news editors.).

And why not let us know here at the RAC Blog? Hundreds of people visit this site every week.

Hams clear frequencies for Haitian earthquake

All radio amateurs are requested to keep 7045 kHz and 3720 kHz clear for possible emergency traffic related to today’s major earthquake in Haiti.

International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) Region II Area C Emergency Coordinator Arnie Coro, CO2KK, reports that as of 0245 UTC on January 13, nothing had been heard from radio amateurs in Haiti, but that the above frequencies were being kept active in case any Haitian hams manage to get on the air, and in case of other related events in surrounding areas, including aftershocks and a possible tsunami.

This notice comes from the editors of CQ Magazine in the CQ Newsletter List.

Sarnia hams hit the headllines

Great story about amateur radio in Sarnia, Ontario as published in The Observer newspaper. Congrats to the Lambton County Radio Club and good luck in attracting new hams to your training course starting on Feb. 27.