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Operating Your Ham Radio in an Emergency

You hope it never happens, but what if worse comes to worst? All emergencies are different, of course, so a step-by-step procedure is not going to be very useful. Here are some solid principles to follow instead, based on the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) Field Resources Manual.

When disaster strikes, do the following:

1. Check that you, your family, and your property are safe and secure before you respond as an emergency communicator (emcomm) volunteer.

2. Monitor your primary emergency frequencies.

3. Follow the instructions you receive from the net control or other emergency official on the frequency.

Check in if and when check-ins are requested.

4. Contact your local emergency communications leader or designee for further instructions.

Keep your head on straight and follow your training so that you can help rather than hinder in an emergency situation.

Reporting an accident or other incident

Reporting an accident is more common than you may think. Anybody who spends time driving can attest to the frequency of accidents. You can use ham radio to report accidents, stalled cars, and fires. Don't assume that people with cellphones are doing it. Know how to report an incident quickly and clearly.

When you have an emergency situation to report, follow these steps if your radio has an autopatch:

1. Turn up your radio's power to the limit and clearly say, "Break" or "Break Emergency" at the first opportunity.

If one station is weak, a stronger signal can get the attention of listening stations. Don't shy away from interrupting an ongoing conversation.

2. After you have control of the repeater or the frequency is clear, state that you have an emergency to report.

3. State clearly that you are making an emergency autopatch (a feature that allows you to make a telephone call from your repeater) and then activate the autopatch system.

If you cannot activate the repeater's autopatch, you may ask another repeater user to activate it for you. Or, on HF or VHF, you can ask for someone to make an emergency relay to 911. In this case, report all the necessary material and then stand by on frequency until the relaying station reports to you that the information is relayed and the call is complete.

4. Dial 911 and when the operator responds, state your name and that you are reporting an emergency via amateur radio.

5. Follow the directions of the operator from there.

If the operator asks you to stay on the line, do so and ask the other repeater users to please stand by.

6. When the operator finishes, release the autopatch and announce that you released the autopatch.

Whether you use a repeater's autopatch feature or relay the report by another repeater user, you need to be able to generate clear, concise information. To report an automobile accident, for example, you should know:

  • The highway number or street
  • The address or approximate mile marker of the highway
  • The direction or lanes the accident occurred
  • Whether the accident is blocking traffic
  • If injuries are apparent
  • If the vehicles are on fire, are smoking, or have spilled fuel

Similarly for fires and other hazards, the dispatcher wants to know where it is and how serious it appears. Don't guess if you don't know for sure! Report what you know, but don't embellish the facts.

Making and responding to distress calls

Before an emergency occurs, be sure you know how to make a distress call on a frequency where hams are likely to be listening, such as a marine service net or a wide-coverage repeater frequency. Store at least one of these frequencies in your radio's memories, if possible. Anyone, licensed or not, can use your radio equipment in an emergency to call for help on any frequency. You won't have time to be looking at net directories in an emergency. Do the following things when you make a distress call.

  • If you need immediate emergency assistance, the appropriate voice signal is MAYDAY and the appropriate Morse code signal is SOS (yes, just like in the movies).
    Maydays sound something like: "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, this is [your call sign]" followed by:

• Your location (latitude/longitude) or address of the emergency

• The nature of the emergency

• What type of assistance you need — such as medical or transportation aid

  • Repeat your distress signal and your call sign for several minutes or until you get an answer. Even if you don't hear an answer, others may hear you.
  • Try different frequencies if you do not get an answer. If you do decide to change frequencies, announce to what frequency you are moving so that anyone hearing you can follow.

If you hear a distress signal on the air:

  • Immediately find something to record information. Note the time and frequency of the call. To help the authorities render assistance as quickly as possible, note the following information:

• The location (latitude/longitude) or address of the emergency

• The nature of the problem

• What type of assistance he or she needs — such as medical or transportation aid

• Any other information that is helpful

  • Respond to the call. Say "[Give the station's call sign], this is [your call sign]. I hear your distress call. What is your situation?"
    Using Morse code, you send "[station's call sign] DE [your call] RRR WAT UR INFO?" or something similar. Let the station in distress know who you are and that you hear them.
  • After you acquire the information, ask the station in distress to remain on frequency.
  • Call the appropriate public agency or public emergency number, such as 911. Follow the dispatcher's instructions to the letter. The dispatcher may ask you to act as a relay to the station in distress.
  • As soon as possible, report back to the station in distress. Tell them who you contacted and any information you have been asked to relay.
  • Stay on frequency as long as the station in distress or the authorities need your assistance.

Supporting emergency communications outside your area

What do you do in case of a disaster or emergency situation outside of your immediate vicinity? How can you be of assistance? The best thing you can do is make yourself available to the on-site communications workers, but only if called upon to do so. Because most of the important information from a disaster flows out, not in, you don't want to get in the way.

If a hurricane is bearing down on Miami, getting on the air and calling, "CQ Miami!" is foolish. The chance you have of actually rendering assistance are minimal and you stand a chance of diverting some actual emergency need from the proper authorities. Instead, support the communications networks that the Miami hams depend on. Check in to your NTS local nets to see if any messages need relayed to your location. Monitor the Hurricane Watch Net on 14.325 MHz and any Florida emergency net frequencies. Tune to the bands that support propagation to Florida, in case someone is calling for help.

You need to help information flow out from the disaster site, not force more in. Listen, listen, listen. That's good advice most of the time.

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