How to Prepare for an Emergency as a Ham Radio Operator
Getting acquainted with emergency organizations for ham radio is fine, but it’s only a start. You need to take the necessary steps to prepare yourself so that when the time comes, you’re ready to contribute. Preparation means making sure that you know four things:
Who to work with
Where to find emcomms groups on the air
What gear to have on hand
How to be of service
Who to work with for ham radio emergency aid
First, become familiar with the leaders in your ARRL section; then get acquainted with the local team leaders and members.
The call signs of the local clubs and stations operating from governmental emergency operations centers (EOC) are valuable to have at your fingertips in times of emergencies. The best way to get familiar with these call signs (and make your call sign familiar to them) is to be a regular participant in nets and exercises.
Checking in to weekly nets takes little time and reinforces your awareness of who else in your area is participating. If you have the time, attending meetings and other functions such as EOC open houses and work parties also helps members put faces with the call signs. Building personal relationships pays off when a real emergency comes along.
Where to find emergency communication groups on the air
When an emergency occurs, you don’t want to be left tuning around the bands trying to find the emcomm groups. Keep a list of the emergency net frequencies, along with the names of the leaders in your area. You may want to reduce this list with a photocopier and laminate it for a long-lasting reference the size of a credit card that you can carry in your wallet or purse.
What gear to have for ham radio emergency communications
If an emergency occurs and your equipment isn’t ready, you can be under tremendous pressure. In your haste, you might omit some crucial item or won’t be able to find it on the spur of the moment. You should assemble a go kit (similar to a first-aid kit) as an antidote to this adrenaline-induced confusion.
How to assemble a go kit
A go kit is a group of items that will be necessary during an emergency; you collect these items in advance and place them in a carrying case. Then, if an emergency situation actually arises, the go kit allows you to spend your time responding to the emergency instead of racing to get your gear together. Preparing the kit in advance also makes you less likely to forget important elements.
Before making up your go kit, consider what mission(s) you may be attempting. A personal checklist is a good starting point. You can find a generic checklist in the ARES Field Resources Manual.
What goes into a go kit varies from ham to ham, but every kit should contain the following essentials:
Nonperishable food: During an emergency, you won’t know when your next meal will arrive. Remove the uncertainty by having your own food (the kind that doesn’t require refrigeration). If you bring canned food, don’t forget the can opener!
Appropriate clothing: If you get too cold, you’ll want a jacket nearby; if you get too hot, you’ll want to exchange your current clothing for something more lightweight. Preparation allows flexibility.
Radios and equipment: Don’t forget to bring all the equipment you may need: radios, antennas, and power supplies. Make sure everything is lightweight, flexible, and easy to set up.
References: You need lists of operating frequencies, as well as phone lists — a personal phone list and a list of emergency-related telephone numbers.
For a complete list of go kits for every occasion and need, check out Dan O’Connor’s Personal Go Kit for Emergency Communications presentation.
How to prepare your home for emergency communications on ham radio
You may not need a formal go kit if you operate from home, but you still need to prepare for emergencies such as an extended power outage or the failure of your main antenna.
Your primary concern is emergency power. Most modern radios aren’t very battery friendly, drawing more than 1 amp even when they’re just receiving. You’ll need a generator to power them during any extended power outage. If you have a home generator, make sure that you can connect to it safely and that it can adequately power the AC circuits in your radio shack.
If you don’t have a generator, you may be able to use another backup power source: Most radios with a DC power supply can run from an automobile battery. Getting power from your car to your radio isn’t always easy, however. Decide which radios you want to operate from your car, and investigate how you can power and connect an antenna to each of them.
How to be of service in emergency communications
Knowing the procedures to follow is the most important part of personal preparedness. Whatever your experience and background are, you have to know the specific details of working with your emergency organizations. If you don’t, you won’t be prepared to contribute when you show up on the air from home or at a disaster site.
Do everyone a favor — including yourself — by spending a little time getting trained in the necessary procedures and techniques. Your local emcomm organization has plenty of training opportunities and training nets for practice.
Participating in public-service activities, such as acting as a race-course checkpoint in a fun run or as a parade coordinator, is awfully good practice, and it exercises your radio equipment as well. (By the way, you’ll make good friends at these exercises who can teach you a lot.)
The ARRL offers emergency-communications training courses that you can take online.
After you start training in emergency communications, you’ll find that training is available for many other useful skills, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), first aid, orienteering, and search and rescue.