As I am preparing a report on the commercial and public safety communications activities during and after Harvey, Irma, and now Maria, which was the worst of the batch, I took some time to reach out to the amateur radio community to find out what they have been doing. The answer is a lot, and often! First, the Radio Relay International (RRI) organization made up of amateur radio operators who specialize in long-range communications has been busy handling health and welfare massages from the islands. Meanwhile, the Red Cross, which has a relationship with the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), put out a call for fifty Red Cross certified ham radio operators to travel to Puerto Rico. Tim Duffy, president of the Radio Club of America (RCA) and president of a large amateur radio supply company also played an active role.
A number of hams from the United States have traveled to the islands while mainland hams have been receiving radio traffic, mostly at this point from residents who want to let their mainland family members know they are alright. Other ham radio emergency organizations such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES), the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) and the Military Affiliate Radio Service (MARS) have all been active in the three hurricanes and in providing local communications after the storms passed.
Hams man stations at Red Cross and other shelters and assist the public safety community when asked. In the case of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, they are serving another important function, that of notifying relatives on the mainland of island residents who are safe. This type of radio traffic is sent using shortwave radios that can communicate over long distances and can be set up and used with a simple wire-type antenna strung between two trees or buildings.
The greatest need has, of course, been in Puerto Rico and the ham radio community has not disappointed. The ARRL sent a number of cases containing long-distance radios and wire antennas, and others are procuring solar panels to use as a power source. Many island hams have set themselves up to be self-sufficient with battery back-up for their radios, perhaps a generator, and ways of stringing up temporary antennas if their own antennas were torn down. The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Association (PRFAA), a Washington-based organization that normally interacts with the White House, Congress, and other U.S. federal agencies is working diligently to send messages to and from the island, and is coordinating efforts with federal agencies on the island to secure locations to set up communications facilities.
Those in Puerto Rico who have not been able to contact their U.S. mainland relatives because there is little if any cellular service are finding the Red Cross and ham radio community working hand in hand to process messages back to the mainland. The way this works is that a message from a survivor is transcribed for the radio operator who, using voice or code, sends the message out to a station on the mainland. It appears as though much of this traffic is going into the New York area. Once the message is received, it is again transcribed and the person who needs to be contacted is usually called on the phone and read the message. Sometimes an answer can be sent to the island but not always. At least the mainland relatives know how those on the island are doing.
Ham radio is also used in many emergency operations centers (EOCs) to provide contact out of the area, again perhaps back to the mainland or to other EOCs. Some emergency communications vehicles are equipped with amateur radios and when sent to an area, a ham rides with the public safety communications personnel to handle the more routine types of traffic, leaving the public safety channels available for emergency work. Local hams are working to re-establish both local voice and data networks that were damaged during Maria and help with related tasks as well. One big benefit of ham radio is that hams can move their equipment and set it up almost anywhere it is needed. They are mobile, they have handheld radios and can assist both locally and long distance, and do not need the Internet or cell phone service to communicate locally or around the world.
Amateur radio is often viewed as an old-style hobby that is dying out due to the Internet, cell phones, and cheap forms of communications. The reality is that there are many young people studying for and passing tests for their amateur radio licenses. If you ask them why, they will tell you they believe they can be of service during major storms and other types of disasters and that there is plenty of room for experimentation and learning. Hams have been using the Internet to interconnect radios in distant cities for many years and there are many data systems on the air as well. Yes, the data speeds are slow, not anywhere near data speeds on commercial broadband networks, but these systems can be moved, set up where needed, and provide data connections between hospitals and other organizations.
The FCC has given the ham radio community a number of different portions of spectrum over time. Spectrum that is close to existing public safety and business radio is used for short-distance communications but using the proper equipment, it can easily provide communications over an entire city. Spectrum in the lower portions of the radio spectrum is used for longer-distance communications and can provide solid communications around the world. In the case of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it can also move voice and Morse code traffic off the island today when most cellular systems are down, as are power and the Internet. Ham radio stations in Puerto Rico have been communicating with mainland United States since the storm blew past, and they are still being used on a daily basis.
In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, very high winds and a lot of driving rain took out the islands’ power, not only at primary power sites. If you look at the pictures, in many areas power poles are lying on the ground and wires are simply dangling freely. The task to bring both power and cellular services back up on the island will take a long time and a lot of effort, not to mention funding. Hams are all volunteers. They are not permitted to be compensated for their work and they purchase their own equipment with their own money in most cases. Some of the most forward-thinking communities have outfitted their Emergency Operations Centers and communications command vehicles with ham radio equipment, but most of the radios used in these disasters have been purchased by the individual hams or by the ARRL for use during disasters.
I am told that the VHF and UHF Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems on the island used by police, fire, and EMS services are functional for the most part, and I will discuss both cellular and LMR systems in more detail in next week’s blog. It is somewhat ironic that Puerto Rico opted into FirstNet only a few weeks ago. AT&T has not even had time to assess what is needed to bring its network closer to public safety grade but it is doubtful that even with more hardened sites, more battery back-up, and more generators the system would have been up 100 percent across the island. Tower News Daily published pictures of some cell sites in Florida where the tower withstood the force of the wind but the antennas were bent over and pointing at the sky instead of the ground. Even if those cell sites remained in service they would not have been useful to anyone in the area.
Events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and major earthquakes that damage communications systems cannot be prevented regardless of how much effort has been put into hardening the network. In these cases, the issue is how quickly service can be restored and what means are available to assist. When an event such as a hurricane gives us warning, commercial network operators, power companies, and land mobile radio companies all prepare. In most cases they pre-stage fuel for generators, people, repair trucks, parts, antennas, and perhaps the electric company brings in some power poles. But when an incident simply happens with no warning, the time it takes for help to be on the way is increased.
Cell phone companies have Cells On Wheels (COWs) they can bring in, some of which have satellite backhaul so they can be connected to the network. In the future, there will be flying COWs and drones that can stay in the air for long periods of time and provide backup services until services on the ground are back in operation and also in areas where today there is no coverage but coverage becomes necessary due to an incident. While all of this is great and it will get better, in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands there is so much damage and so many roads that are not passable that probably only flying COWs and drones would be useful in many areas.
As the islands are put back into operation with power and cell services, you can bet AT&T will be restoring its network and also eyeing changes it can implement to make them more resilient. However, even then, if there is another event such as Maria I am not at all sure that even if all the sites are completely hardened (an impossibly expense task) that the networks would be able to withstand the forces of nature. Remember, somewhere in your neighborhood is a ham radio operator who stands ready to assist in bringing communications to those who need it most. Sometimes it seems we simply assume our communications networks and the Internet will be available all the time, but during Harvey, Irma, and now Maria, many learned that communications capabilities, one of the most important links for all of us, may not always be available when we want them and need them. While our infrastructure companies work at making our systems better, there are times when nature’s fury beats our best efforts. The good news is that when all else fails there will still be amateur radio!
Andrew M. Seybold W6AMS
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