The great thing about a hobby like ours is that there is so much diversity that you can pick whatever niche suits you. From a public perspective, though, there is one branding message that should unite us all: We are the Communication Experts.
During Hurricane Harvey, I saw amateur radio at it’s best. Our trained volunteers were “relevant, resilient and ready” to engage whenever and wherever there was a need. The old ARRL chestnut that our service is there when traditional infrastructure fails was on full display. We don’t showcase our contributions as effectively as we might, but the bottom line is that we are prepared to deploy a communications infrastructure quickly and man it professionally.
From a technical perspective, we have connected manpower. Whether it’s 2 meters or 20 meters, our ability to provide a reliable communication is well known. What’s less well known is that we can deploy TCP/IP networking, a plug and play system that looks and feels just like the Internet, where familiar devices can configure popular com apps to exchange robust content over a broadband pipe. Our APRS equipment can help emergency services keep track of the location of their units. And amateur radio can be the common communication link when out of town resources who may not have interoperable radios are brought into the picture.
But what about smart phone solutions like Zello? During Harvey, Zello came to the fore as an effective method for connecting those in need of help with rescuers. Essentially a walkie talkie app, Zello became the central pivot for a crowd source command center that sprung up out of nowhere to become a crucial communications tool. (There are several amateur radio channels on Zello by the way.)
RadioRelay.org, a group founded by fans of the National Traffic System, created a helpful guide for people who own Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) rigs on how to use them to summon help. Hams teaching lay people about how to use their technology in an emergency: Another positive amateur radio story we should be telling.
I still occasionally hear some hams deride network connected systems like Echolink, DMR and D-Star, saying, “that’s not ham radio.” What is important to remember is that our training to efficiently pass traffic in emergency situations is our unique selling proposition. In the end, the platform is irrelevant. Our ability to use any technology to professionally contribute to the health and welfare of our communities under the amateur radio banner is what really matters.
How does this mindset benefit our essential avocation? When we consider ourselves communication experts, we become the go-to people for a wide array of technological questions. Hams should be all over the maker movement. We were the first makers, before there were Raspberry Pis or smart devices. Hams should be thinking about how to build robust, wide area networks that are not grid dependant and can seamlessly pass broadband traffic when the commercial networks fail. And we should be experimenting with communications applications like Zello to extend our expertise and our service brand beyond the traditional.
One of the things I found most impressive about our Harvey engagement was the Echolink / IRLP interconnection of repeaters across South Texas with the WX_TALK conference server. Net controls from as far away as Laredo and Louisiana were able to provide coverage, adding fresh, well trained energy to the mix. Imagine a ham radio net control team providing support on the Zello network, injecting our call signs into the mix to remind those listening where the talent was coming from.
As my friend, Sid NH7C likes to say, we have to demonstrate our “capability” ahead of the need. That’s why training, practice and promotion are essential before emergency events.. on all platforms.
My daughter called me the other day. She is a business executive who lives in a part of Florida where hurricanes can do significant damage. “I’ve been thinking about this ham radio stuff,” she told me. “With all the news about losing power and cell networks failing, maybe I need to get licensed.” That was music to my ears. And not so much because she’ll have a ticket and a radio. What really excites me is that we, the amateur radio community, will have the opportunity to teach her how to use it.
After all, we are the Communications Experts.