Sudden Radio Silence in High Risk Scenarios

At Boston we’ve ben attacked as a nation by a bomber.

Our prayers and thoughts are with those killed and injured, and their families.

Our heartfelt thank you and admiration goes out to those who responded, especially as they really didn’t know if they themselves were safe from an additional bombing.

From the news one item dealing with RF jumped out – the Cell Phone Network was instantly taken down by authorities to prevent its use as a trigger for any additional bombs.

Bombs, or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) if you prefer, are typically controlled in two ways:

  • Time
  • Trigger

For Time you can imagine the electronic, mechanical, or chemical functional equivalent of a “fuse.”  Once the fuse is lit, the bomb will be set off at a set period of time afterwards.  The timer can be internal or external, but the functional distinction of a Time Bomb is the device is exploded based on Time as the primary criteria.

For Trigger devices there may be manual control (pull a string, a trip-wire, or hit the detonator with an impact), electronic control (wires back to detonator control box),  a conditional control (goes off when stepped on, moved, opened, when wet, or any other a number of sensor based criteria), radio control (think of the door lock button on your car’s key fob, or perhaps its own cell phone or other receiver), or other set-off methods.  The main criteria of Trigger is that external stimulus is needed to set the bomb off.

There are combinations of Time and Trigger – the combinations are endless.

As radio amateurs we’re interested in the Trigger by Radio.  In the Boston case authorities feared/theorized that the cell phone network was a potential Trigger and for safety they shut it down.

In the videos released I didn’t spot any first responders, police, fire or security on radios, though it is unclear if radio silence was being enforced.

Often used in warfare, there are jamming countermeasures that might be deployed, which deny the use of the RF spectrum as a Trigger.  Some variations are intended to set off the RF based Trigger exploding a device from a stand-off situation.

The cowards who did the Boston bombings very likely may have controlled the bombs by cell phone.

In a situation like this bombing one has to reflect if keying up an HT is very smart – at least until the area is searched for additional devices & cleared.  If the enemy has left a tiered pattern of devices the RF from an HT may be the next device’s Trigger.

Temporary self imposed Radio Silence in High Risk Scenarios may be needed until the “all clear” is given.

“Certainly much more will come to light about the remote Cell Phone detonation of the devices, over the next few days and weeks.

Again our prayers and thoughts are with those killed and injured, and their families.



Why I only do Indepependent Personal Emcomm….

I’ve been asked why I limit my Emergency Communications involvement to little more than Personal Preparedness?

There is a whole raft of reasons:

Staying off lists.

I’m not interested in being on targeted lists.  In the best of times they lead to requests and demands I may have never intended to offer my services for, and in the worst of times they are ready-made radio confiscation lists.  Perhaps having a bit of  a background in doing the government side of working lists & information has made me edgy, as I basically want to keep my “private citizen, not involved” status whenever possible.

Family, neighbors, coworkers and community come first.

I don’t want to have some semi-official status pulling me away from doing what I have committed to do first – that is taking the best care & contributing where I can for Family, Neighbors, Coworkers and my very local Community first.

Not interested in “playing army” having really been a Soldier.

A real put-off is the paramilitary feel and games some parts of organized Emcomm have taken on.  While I understand the need for discipline and a standard methodology, I have enough experience at the real military that I’m not going to play around pretending I am still in service.

There are other forms of organization, motivation and coordination that can work for a volunteer group rather than the paramilitary model.

Just because you’re licensed longer, take more meds, and have plenty of spare time doesn’t mean I can trust your leadership.

One of the ways people arrive in leadership in many Emcomm groups is to have the time available to them.  This often means the energetic young leaders are expected to follow good folk who circumstances have put a lot of time in their laps.  Not every everyone who has retired, happens to be out of work, or is medically off work, makes a leader a volunteer can trust.  Many are great folks having their first stab at leading volunteers, which can be rather “interesting.”  Unfortunately some are prone to leadership flaws that keep them from being effective.

Demands that I compromise personal safety by disarming to help Emcomm are irresponsible demands.

This is a personal pet peeve.  Maybe these Emcomm Leaders don’t understand he life experiences I have had that leads me to select appropriate protection when prudent, but I am not delegating my individual personal safety to them.  Sitting back in their grant money funded Emcomm bunkers one could argue that they don’t even have enough skin in the game to say anything at all how a rover or home based Emcomm volunteer keeps themselves safe.

This demand to disarm by Emcomm crosses an non-negotiable infringement on how I keep myself safe, and I am certainly not altering my stance to volunteer.

Knowing the games played to place truthful information flow under political control, can a person keep their integrity intact in organized Emcomm?

Time has leaked out so much about the attempts to control information during Katrina – when cellphone systems were shut down to meet information control goals, that one wonders if  they can ethically be part of any repeat?  The moves to obscured transmissions and encrypted internet type traffic for Emcomm is not all about getting the information out there, is it?

I really didn’t get into this hobby to play traffic cop.

I love too much the varied aspects of Amateur Radio and originally became involved for technical interests with a special interest in the old HF long distance aviation navigation system for overseas flights.  I’ve built some of my own gear and have experimented with leading edge (and “bleeding edge”) gear throughout the 20 plus years I’ve been involved.

It wasn’t a civic duty as a focus that drew me to amateur radio.

So what do I do?  Independent Emcomm a.ka. “Freecom”

There is a lot an individual can do to be an Independent Emcomm ready – a Freecom Amateur.  I’d taken almost every ARRL pre-FEMA on-line course, have built up a very modest but well proven portable station and have kept abreast of the latest in Emcomm.

Having a generator and batteries to operate off grid, a selection of portable antennas, and enough gear to go to the field is useful.

Most important though is gaining enough knowledge and technical references to build & repair gear.  And to improvise.

All of this is a lot of fun – from building transceivers to satellite antennas to mobile-shack accessories.

All without attending a meeting, a drill or playing games.



Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness for a Modern Radio Amateur the Freecomm Way

What is the Radio Amateur’s responsibility for Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness?

Yeah, let’s get that answered and out of the way.

In absolutes their responsibility is “none” – zero, nada, zilch – none.

Personal Emergency Communications Preparedness, even for those of us who are ARRL members, is not a requirement.

[ Wipe Brow and Sigh here ]

That out of the way, it would be an extraordinary Radio Amateur who didn’t have some level of interest in Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness.

That interest could range from simply being glad there are ARES/RACES Groups, to having a grid-independent multi-mode station with portable personal go-packs.

What you do is completely up to your interests, resources, whims and desires.

Some years ago the Freecomm idea of active Personal Emergency Communication Preparedness without the formal structures & obligations was floated.

As a response to the increasing professionalization of existing Emcomm organizations the Freecomm idea is to share techniques, operating pricinples and ideas, without an imposed hierarchy and operating procedure.

Freecomm is most able to use innovative techniques and adaptive structure to accomplish Amateur Radio’s emergency communication desires, where Emcomm is about meeting the served agencies’ requirements in the ways & methods they dictate.

It could be argued that Freecomm is Emergency Communications for the True Patriots in our society.

Very curious what readers think of the distinction – am I making too much of the Freecomm/Emcomm difference, or is it as important as I’m seeing?

Comments welcome,



Do You Like ARES? A Question Posed.

About three weesk ago in the midst of separating the physical property of the departing emergency communications group from our main radio club the DEC suggested that the local radio club had a dislike for ARES.

More correctly he asked us why the club had concerns about ARES?

With the para-professionalization, the creation of the communications foot soldier, through the organize groups there emerges a natural conflict with the hobbyist ham interested in more than one aspect of the hobby.

The paraprofessional is interested in what classes they taken, the drills they have participated in, they’re ranking within the organization, and their served agencies.

The hobbyist usually has much wider interests, perhaps working DX, or collecting counties, trying to work all states, experimenting with a new digital mode, home brewing their own equipment, they be perhaps working QRP, or collecting by IOTA islands, or any one of 1000 other interests. Within the group of interest may be in interest in emergency communications, but this usually is not the overriding reason why they’re participating in the hobby.

Perhaps the para-professionalization is a manifestation of the black box — appliance user — mentality. This isn’t necessarily bad, and I do not mean it to be pejorative, but it is a mentality where results become the focus with less interest or joy is put in the process of getting there.

The amateur radio traditions of a full interest group usually include many of the traditions that led to the technology that an emergency group uses. Search and rescue is often practiced by foxhunters. The digital modes first came from experimentation — an application of commercial grade technology at the hobbyist level. The ubiquitous repeater was a technological brainchild with a more general use.

Amateur radio has always been ready to provide community service in time of emergency. However historically it tended to be a self led effort, rather than a served agency structured effort. There is little doubt that over time the pendulum both ways between ad hoc and formalize emergency communications by radio amateurs, but for some years the ARRL seemed to be solidly in control of training, doctrine, and coordination of the organized radio amateurs emergency communication experience.

That dynamic has certainly changed. With the FCC speaking out on employee/employer situations and the announced restructure of the league emergency communications courses along government lines, the pendulum has swung to one side very far indeed.

While part 97 does provide for expediency based utilization of frequency allocations during a true emergency, it is very clear that it never subordinates one amateur to another, or one group of amateurs to another.

This fundamental, basic, obvious equality of each individual amateur in the eyes of the FCC seems to escape some of the people involved in emergency communications. Of course there are exceptions, the presidential level decree to activate the radio amateur civilian emergency service being one, or the expediency based justification for extraordinary operation in a true emergency being another, but during drills, day-to-day operations, or even in planning one amateur is equal to another.

This DEC was clear that the emergency communications organizations are never answerable to a club. Likewise a club is never answerable to an external organization of fellow hams. Even our work with repeaters is called “coordination” and acknowledges that there are possibilities outside of being dictated to.

So back to the question we were asked. I would answer “it really doesn’t matter, as in a nonemergency situation they have zero effect on my participation in this hobby.”

Outside of the true emergency, in which case again as a radio amateur responding to an emergency I to would be allowed any and all use of frequencies or techniques to prevent the loss or risk of loss of life — let me emphasize there is not a monopoly unless the very high level directive ordering non-radio amateur civilian emergency service stations off the air is given — that every amateur and non-amateur has the same in emergency right to operate.

Again outside of that limited situation where the government has taken over control of the airwaves every amateur is created the same right the FCC and remains the same.

It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” — Voltaire

This may be an inconvenient truth and one that causes much argument, as a drill is not an emergency, a plan is only a plan and a nonemergency. In the end it is the able and willing radio amateur that makes both emergency communications on amateur frequencies and general club activities a possibility.



Emcomm Professionalization Marches On

Have you drank the Emcomm Koolaid?

Have you drank the Emcomm Koolaid?

As an ARRL Emcomm Level I, II & III Field Instructor/Mentor/Examiner I’m included on the ARRL’s related communications.

The program is doing a major change, and just look at the list of courses they expect someone to make time to take – courses that do not have very much to do with Radios BTW, but instead are our Government’s ideas being imposed by our organization.

As an employer I would be hard pressed to ask this level of coursework not directly related to our task at hand, but for Volunteers it seems very unlikely that as hobbyists that we could really ask people to complete a list that includes:

  • ICS-100
  • ICS-200
  • ICS (NIMS)-700
  • IS-800
  • IS-240
  • IS-241
  • IS-250
  • IS-1
  • IS-288
  • IS-244
  • IS-120.a
  • IS-130
  • IS-139

and, get this – drops the requirement to hold an FCC Radio License to be an ARRL Emcomm Team Member or leader!!

Notice that you now need “permission” to train from your Section Manager!

That the ARRL is no longer driving the “Emcomm Bus” is confirmed when deference to FEMA becomes so complete as to tell us: “Please note: the list of FEMA course as prerequisites, as well as those referenced internally within the course, may change as FEMA makes changes to its course offerings or the course is modified to introduce new content.”

In all fairness this is for the advanced (combined old Level II & III) Emcomm level, but that the leadership has been turned over to non-ham served agencies is evident at the Basic Level as well.

Here is the announcement:

To: Continuing Education Program EmComm Mentors and Instructors

The new Emergency Communications course is taking shape. Here are the details.

The content of the new emergency communications course is undergoing final review and the decisions about what shape this new course will take have been made. I’d like to update you on our progress, what changes are being made and what may be expected of you.

As we have said previously, the former Level 2 and Level 3 Emergency Communications courses are being updated and combined into one new course. The new course will focus on emergency communications training for leaders and managers. The title of the new course is Public Service and Emergency Communications Management for Radio Amateurs.

We anticipate launching this new course in January 2010. It has been developed in a lesson format and will be posted on our website and, as such, it will be viewable by any ARRL member. Members will need only log in to the ARRL website to see the course material. It will not be a mentored course. Later on, we may provide a mentored online forum on our website where students can post questions about course topics and receive answers from a mentor.

Requirements for Course Completion:
The new course requires that the student has previously completed the Level 1/Basic course, certain FEMA courses and has some experience with Amateur Radio and emergency communications. Those who desire to receive a course completion certificate for this new course (which we refer to in shorthand as “Advanced EmComm”) will first need to document that they have satisfied a list of prerequisites. After providing the necessary documentation, applicants will be required to pay an enrollment fee of $35 to gain access to the course’s final exam. This fee will help to offset the cost of developing the course and for the online testing service as well as costs for administrative support.

The course prerequisites to be verified include:
An Amateur Radio license,
Completion of ARRL’s Level 1/Basic course, and
Completion of FEMA courses that are background for this course.

FEMA prerequisites:
ICS-100 (basic ICS)
ICS-200 (supervisory)
ICS (NIMS)-700
ICS-300, a classroom course, is also highly recommended, but not required

Candidates for the course completion certificate will also be required to document completion of additional FEMA courses that are integrated into the Advanced EmComm course curriculum. These include:

IS-800 (National Response Framework)
FEMA IS-240, Leadership & Influence
FEMA IS-241, Decision Making & Problem Solving
FEMA IS-250, Emergency Support Function 15 (ESF15), External Affairs
FEMA IS-1, Emergency Manager, An Orientation to the Position
IS-288, The Role of Voluntary Agencies in Emergency Management
IS-244, Developing and Managing Volunteers
FEMA IS-120.a, An Introduction to Exercises
FEMA IS-130, Exercise Evaluation and Improvement Planning
FEMA IS-139, Exercise Design
Please note: the list of FEMA course as prerequisites, as well as those referenced internally within the course, may change as FEMA makes changes to its course offerings or the course is modified to introduce new content.

Applicants will also need to supply a reference from their Section Manager, or his or her designee, stating the reason for the applicant’s participation. Section Managers will take into account the applicant’s relevant experience or role within emergency communications and whether they are in good standing within the amateur radio community. Once applicants have documented that these requirements have been met and they have paid the course evaluation fee, they will receive access to complete the online exam.

We are also making provision for unlicensed individuals who perform an official role as an emergency responder to earn the course completion certificate if they desire. To apply to take the final exam and earn the course completion certificate, these individuals will need to obtain a “waiver” recommendation from the local ARRL Section Manager. This waiver request should include a description of the position of responsibility the applicant holds in an emergency response organization. Note that these individuals will need to be an ARRL member to obtain access to the course on the ARRL website. Later on, when other media formats are available there may be additional ways to access the course materials.

Course Presentation:
Because of the nature of the course content and its fluidity with regard to decisions of the Federal government, as well as its internal links to reference material from non-ARRL sources, we are reluctant to produce copies of the course in media which are fixed in time. Nevertheless, later on, we are considering publishing the Advanced course in other media formats (print, CD, etc.), and depending on demand, may also build an infrastructure for field classroom instruction of the course. However, all course completion exams will be conducted online and course completion certificates will be issued online. We will notify Section Managers of the names of those who earn the course completion certificate.

Status of Current Mentors and Instructors:
All current EmComm online Mentors and Field Instructors who intend to continue instructing the Level 1/Basic course, as well as any who foresee conducting classroom instruction for the new Advanced course, will need to take this course and earn the course completion certificate.

All EmComm Mentors and Field Instructors will need to earn this course completion certificate on or before December 31, 2010 to continue in the role of Emergency Communications Mentor or Field Instructor. This is one of a few new qualifying requirements for Mentors and Field Instructors that will be phased in during 2010 as we endeavor to insure more consistency and control over EmComm instruction.

Mentors and Field Instructors who have been active during the past 2 years—since January 2008—will be able to enroll in the course evaluation component of the new Advanced course free of charge.

We have been reevaluating our EmComm training goals and processes as we have been configuring this new course. There were many opinions and constraints to be considered, but we believe we now have an excellent training program about to be unveiled which will position Amateur Radio well for the future. We appreciate your patience.


Debra Johnson, K1DMJ
Education Services Manager
ARRL, the national association for Amateur Radio™
225 Main Street
Newington, CT 06111-1494
(860) 594-0296
Fax: (860) 594-0259

The ARRL CE Program has not been updated past dropping EC-002 & EC-003 from the offering. (As an aside a number of other courses have been withdrawn over time for various reasons or for repackaging as a purchased course at the ARRL Store).

More as the ARRL explains the moves to a FEMA based Emcomm program.




It Must Be Something in the Air – Radio Clubs & Emcomm

It must be something in the air, the obvious differences between various amateur radio hobby groups.

Wait — perhaps that is it? amateur radio hobby groups — there we go, it is that combination of words.

Amateur – the nonprofessional, the enthusiast, the Explorer, the experimenter, the advocate.

Radio — that use of the electronic ether to communicate.

Hobby – a pursuit of passion, a non-employment enjoyment, and adventure in learning for the joy of learning.

Groups — a club, an organization, an observable affiliation, and alignment.

There does seem to be a difference between a general all disciplines amateur radio group and the group singly focused on one aspect, one small subset, of the greater hobby.

I might liken it to the difference between being in a big tent — a Chautauqua like encompassing tent — or being in an isolated command tent back in my Army Field days.

Amateur radio emergency service and radio amateurs civilian emergency service both are disciplines, important but small disciplines within the greater amateur radio hobby.

There is little doubt that when served agencies are in true emergency need that they find some comfort and utility in having willing radio groups to fulfill their communications needs.

However does become the fashion of these days for that comfort to be more economic than practical. The economic side being that the volunteers are unpaid, usually bring their own equipment or heavy equipment available from various grants, and are quite willing to do drills and other training on their own, whereas employee base communications would be phenomenally more expensive to develop and maintain — not to mention limitations on available frequencies.

In their own interest of containing liability and improving interoperability served agencies have pushed a professionalization of the amateur. A professionalization that in the way of most oxymorons doesn’t seem to work.

While perhaps it does work a bit, but it doesn’t seem to work quite as envisioned — the unintended consequences being a disharmony among radio amateurs, an unrealistic expectation of some sort of priority for frequencies in the event of an emergency, an effort by those involved to subvert wider general amateur radio hobby groups into their ideals of emergency radio communications.

This is not just at the street level — that the club level is not alone in experiencing this conflict — but is very observable right to the highest levels. The current arguments over whether the FCC should selectively choose to not enforce regulations existing on the books or whether they should enforce them to the nth degree, have greatly replaced the ongoing code/no code argument that had preoccupied amateur radio creating factions over the last several years.

In speaking with leadership in the various emergency communications groups they have not even been properly briefed on how to handle the waiver process, the full background on why the rules exist and need to be enforced, or what the impact is for their members who also happen to be employees of served agencies. Part of this may be the very newness of the awareness that the law had provided for regulations of this nature.

But the card is continuing wishful thinking and lack of consultation with true professionals while operating in areas that could cost a person not only a significant fine, but perhaps their amateur radio license.

To have a lack of understanding in this area isn’t surprising given the general confusion in emergency communications over insurance, command structure, whether an emergency communicator works for their emergency communication organization or the served agency, or how to deal with dual hat situations.

It isn’t easy — none of it’s easy — but that doesn’t excuse us in the eyes of the regulations and enforcement that well could follow if we make it personal operating error. in the end it would be the amateur who may well have to defend themselves from economic loss and potential loss of their hobby.

I have also had emergency communications leadership correctly point out that with the direction of professionalization of the amateur emergency communications, the compatibility of a general radio club and in emergency communications organization is minimal. They have told me they are suggesting that the groups develop distinct separate leadership, identity, legal organization, books, tax ID numbers, and operate in separate fashion. They hoped that these separate entities would be cooperative and mutually supportive, but made no bones that in their mind emergency communications held an ultimate trump card, and must prevail over general amateur radio in their vision of that cooperation.

In other words that’s nice talk for an open plan to displace the hobbyist in favor of paraprofessional mock amateur radio operations, under a unilateral implementation of their idea of greater good.

What a load of rubbish — what a disservice to their fellow radio amateurs and the history that brought this hobby to this point.

It was not some paraprofessional subgroup that our country look to in each of the world wars for radioman in the military, it was not some paraprofessional specialized team in specialized DF bunkers on the coasts that are Coast Guard and Navy have looked to to assist over the years, nor has it been some select paraprofessional group that are various military services have looked to for civilian support for their radio amateur communication efforts.

Of course they will speak of the needs in a true emergency, that sort of emergency where every one of us would be willing to help. But to limit response to paraprofessionals many of us, despite having all the technical and accreditation qualifications, we’ll find ourselves less able to help.

And of course when undertaking a drill there is no legal claim to “true emergency” and their claim to priority becomes hogwash.

Many of you have seen some of these paraprofessionals, once a year drill warriors whose brand-new pristine radios and manuals have suffered more wear from storage than from use, usually a mixture of retirees, the medically retired, and the perennial unemployed, along with a spattering of a few good souls. These drill warriors are the sorts who seldom actually hear on the radio, and if you do it is likely to be just one mode or perhaps even only on one repeater.

Luckily there are exceptions, the fellows who have full station capability and are on all the time, but in many groups they are expected to carry a heavy load being not only the only seasoned operators, but among the few technically orientated who can say quote “I have done that” when asked for solutions.

What does it mean for the rest of us? If one does not want to become a paraprofessional, nor wants to compromise existing commitments to family or to other organizations to become a dual hat wearing person, or simply has greater responsibilities, what do we do?

Some time ago the concept of Freecom was launched quietly among the amateur radio community.

This is a simple idea of being fully capable of emergency operations, of handling traffic, and having a calling to a higher level of love of country, freedom, and the Constitution.

It is an ideal that incorporates the traditional traffic handling with the emergent awareness that without our freedom, our inalienable rights, and are deference to the Constitution we are lost.

It has been proposed back in oath, like the oath the military and police oath takers affirm, dictation mode would become a major component of this new amateur radio initiative.

Actually it is a very old amateur radio initiative that is made new only in contrast of the darker side of the amateur — paraprofessional.

If one reads amateur radio books from the 20s 30s 50s and 60s you will find a self sufficient radio amateur portrayed in a way that has not remained fashionable. Technology has brought us to the point where we have radio amateurs who are “appliance operators” and have neither in the interest nor in many cases the ability to move beyond.

Our historic self-sufficient radio amateur built what they couldn’t buy, pioneered what has not yet been invented, talk themselves what had not yet made it to university lectures, and many as a result became not only pioneers and leaders in amateur radio but also became historic businessman and inventors of the wide renown.

It is not that we are completely lacking of the spirit today, but rather that it has been subverted by the enslavement to a served agency dictate of emergency communications.

There is a new Yahoo group covering Freecom and I intend to cover it further here. I will be adding a tab at the top of the page for Freecom as a shortcut to posts concerning a self-sufficient perspective of the radio amateur.