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The Emergency Communications Catalyst: Social Media Meets Amateur Radio

I recently wrote on the coming of age of the “Digital Public Information Officer (PIO)” and how social media, digital volunteers, and organization is key. (Find the original posting here: Considerations for the Digital Public Information Officer) This sparked a lot of great conversation across the Social Media in Emergency Management (SMEM) community and a recent SMEMChat (#smemchat) widened the conversation into topic areas of addressing where existing volunteers may be already working that may be well suited for cross training in the use of social media. To this end an interesting conversation blossomed on bringing into the fray a group of technologically savvy people that most emergency managers have at their disposal now: Amateur Radio operators.

Amateur Radio, also more commonly referred to as “Ham Radio”, has been around for quite some time and has often been one of the only means of communications after mass disasters around the world. (i.e., Hurricane Katrina, 2003 Northeastern US Black Out, 2004 Tsunami, and many others.) This community of tightly knit hobbyist have an urge to learn, create, and/or modify/manipulate just about anything electronic and/or can be used to communicate with the outside world. Tapping into this innovative spirit only lends itself in making emergency communications easier when things get tough. However, this should not be something new to of those who have been working with Amateur Radio operators for disaster response efforts in the past. Though, others may need to take a second look at this growing resource.

So, what makes Amateur Radio operators such a great resource? Simple: Have tech, innovative spirit, and will travel. This is a group of highly dedicated, tech minded, problem solvers that are up to just about any challenge if it can be fixed with technology. (..or duct tape, WD40, and a hammer..) It only makes sense that those who find their hobby based in finding new and innovative ways to communicate may in fact be the best place to find assistance in engaging the public during a disaster. Though its not just the innovative spirit that makes Hams a great resource, part of what separates Amateur Radio hobbyists from the pack is the fact that there are licensing requirements that require base knowledge in simple electronics, radio wave propagation, and the regulations that bind license holders. (This is no backseat quarterback hobby people.) However, the buck doesn’t stop there. This group of highly skilled volunteers are also well versed in emergency management, communications platforms, and some even already belong to organizations that provide this support today. (Possibly within your organization already.) Anything from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS), SKYWARN, State and Local Emergency Management Support (Check out the State of Oregon and their integration), the Red Cross, and Amateur Radio Clubs themselves have looped in Ham operators for years to help provide communications during disasters. Even more important is that a lot of these organizations are in the Social Media space already and expanding every day. Bottom line, these individuals are near by and have been part of the system for some time and may be under utilized.

Taking this resource and applying it to the Social Media engagement side of the house may be just what the doctor ordered. Amateur Radio operators almost always want to learn something new. This want to always be absorbing new technology and how it works is one of the most promising aspects about adding Social Media to their skill set. What better to reinforce your Emergency Operations Center (EOC) communications cell than to take your trained volunteers and add another communication method to their ever growing tool box of options in helping get the word out? These individuals already are plugged into most organization’s situational awareness, command and control, and communications groups helping pass information, why not help empower these volunteers to pass important information back to the public as well?

Now granted this process may not come over night, but here are a few steps that can help bring the two together:

1.) Ask! If an organization doesn’t engage the available volunteers from local RACES, ARES, MARS, SKYWARN and other Ham Radio volunteers if there is any interest in learning more about applying Social Media to the same problems these groups handle every day, one may never know the interest level. So, get in there and engage.

2.) Educate! As stated previously, Hams are typically technologically savvy and love playing with just about any type of technology, though it is possible to run into situations where this is new ground for some of these individuals. Help bring these volunteers up to speed on what is going on and how the organization envisions using Social Media to better help communicate with the public in an emergency. It is highly likely that additional ideas will be produced from this group as they come up to speed.

3.) Train, Exercise, and Repeat! Once there is engagement with interested Hams and they are up to speed, now is the time to get a solid training regiment in place. Though some Amateur Radio operators have had training via organizations like RACES, ARES, MARS, and SKYWARN this is a great time to bring them up to speed on the organizational operating procedures and emergency management in general. Set up minimum training requirements: (i.e., FEMA EMI IS-100, FEMA EMI IS-200, FEMA EMI IS-700, FEMA EMI IS-704, ARRL EC-016, and ARRL EC-001) Once trained, practice and do it again until comfortable.

4.) Communicate! Once things are underway and there is an established process in place that the organization and the volunteers are comfortable with start telling people about it. People can’t volunteer for something they don’t know about. Amateur Radio is still growing strong as a hobby and more and more people want to know how to become more involved in helping out during disasters.

In the end, this is a great chance to bring together a group of volunteers that are already available within most EOCs to help engage the public with information, faster. Take the time to talk to these individuals, find common ground, locate the interest, make a plan of action, and execute.

Opportunity is knocking, is your organization ready to step up to the challenge?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey Chris – I definitely agree with leveraging all the resources at an organization’s disposal – especially passionate citizens who can help to get the word out about important information.

But in this case, I’m wondering: what’s the listenership of Amateur Radio? How does it compare to other forms or communication?

What about converting the Amateur Radio hosts to become Amateurs Podcasters?

Chris Poirier

Andrew- It’s not about listenership. In the context of this article and SMEM in general it’s about resources available to be cross trained in the use of Social Media. During an emergency these individuals are already on hand, trained, and have equipment to help pass critical information. What I am recommending is that emergency management organizations consider adding social media to their already existing skill sets. This isn’t an engagement issue directly, its about utilizing existing resources to push more information to the public in more ways. These folks are very tech savvy and most are already using Social Media to further their hobby. (SKYWARN has a pretty solid SM presence and most clubs do as well. A lot do already have podcasts etc, but that does not solve the real-time information flow of a disaster.) So, it’s not about one over the other, it’s about the combination of the two.

However, for discussion’s sake: Listenership during an emergency is high among those in the hobby, emergency management, NGO, government, etc. As mentioned in my piece, after a lot of major events ham radio was the ONLY method of communications getting out of impacted areas in the early hours. (This was especially true during Katrina.) Most times when the power grid goes down Hams are the only one’s on the area and passing information. Hams can even push data and video with minimal to no grid power during an emergency. In other words, when the lights go out, they are still on, thus making them great partners in the effort.

Chris Poirier

I suppose another way to look at it is I am recommending the convergence of communication methods/technology instead of the conversion of one to the other.