Emergency communications

Emergency communication is a very special form of two-way radio communication. In some countries (notably the United States), it is often handled as a part of the Amateur Radio service, but this is frowned upon by other administrations since the purpose of amateur radio is basically self-training, and providing emergency relief generally does not fall under that category – or at the very least it should not. An emergency is not the time to perfect your communications skills.

In Sweden, emergency communications is often handled by members of the Voluntary Radio Organization (FRO) on specifically allocated frequency channels. Many members of FRO are also radio amateurs, and amateur radio clubs are many times asked to provide communications for public events which provides good practice, but the two are nonetheless very distinct.

While amateur radio is largely chit-chat, any kind of public service communications requires a great degree of professionalism, and the traffic patterns tend to reflect this. (Short, to-the-point transmissions with minimal air clutter as opposed to the much more relaxed – and in my opinion sometimes annoying – style heard during most contacts on the amateur radio bands.)

The basic requirements to be able to participate in emergency or public service communications are very similar to what is needed for basic amateur radio. You need a transceiver (radio transmitter/receiver) and antenna setup capable of the frequencies used in your area, a power supply of some sort and, depending on specifics, cabling to hook up everything. However, public service communications sometimes require a little more than chit-chatting for fun from home. You would probably want a power supply that is independent of the main power grid (so you do not lose the ability to communicate when the power goes out and you most need that ability), the radio should preferably be relatively portable, you will need some way to accurately receive, transmit or retransmit messages, and you may find yourself out in the unsheltered elements for an extended period of time which puts great demands on your clothing as well as the radio equipment. Ever been basically standing still outside from 07:00 to 17:00, with temperatures varying between +10°C and +25°C, having to keep your attention perked at all times taking written notes of activity around you to be accurately relayed over the radio? That is not unheard of, I have been through pretty much that myself when providing public service communications. And just when you think it is over, there is a debriefing session before you can finally go home and go to sleep after a 12-14 hour day. Plus, if it is a big event, it all repeats the next day. Did you remember to recharge those batteries?

The upshot of public service communications is when you get to read about the event where you helped out in the newspaper the next day, and you can get a warm feeling that you were one of those who helped make it possible to arrange it all in a safe manner, or even that you were able to provide help with bona-fide disaster relief.

Just to give you an idea of what is needed for an extended emergency assignment or training session, this is a list of items suggested by one local FRO club. It is not meant to cover everything, but rather be a general guideline. As you can see, there is a lot more on it than just a radio! A lot of the minimum items in particular are what most people likely have at home, but can you get it together in a hurry, possibly in the dark (because the power is out)?

Equipment suggestions

Minimum

  • Radio with charged batteries
  • Extra batteries
  • Battery charger for the radio, solar or car powered
  • Clothing appropriate for the season
  • Map and compass or knowledge of the area
  • Flashlight with fresh batteries
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Note-taking materials
  • First aid supplies
  • Proof of identity
  • Firesteel or water-proof matches
  • Knowledge about: radio communications, first aid, use of map and compass, simple survival (purifying water, making fire and shelter)

Additionally

  • Durable clothing and boots or shoes
  • Field kitchen with fuel, cutlery, something to eat on
  • Full rain coat
  • Chocolate, dexstrose or other form of quick energy
  • Water in field flask or similar
  • String 5 meters
  • Medicines, allergy, headaches, stomach ailments
  • Change of clothes

Extra

  • Ground sheet
  • Sleeping bag
  • Tent or tarp with fastening arrangement and rope
  • Rope 20 meters
  • Backpack
  • Extra layer of warm clothes during winter season
  • Any applicable emergency equipment, for example life jacket, ice-prods
  • Spade
  • Axe or saw
  • Pasta, rice or other food that does not need to be kept refrigerated
  • Non-battery-powered source of light
  • GPS
  • Repair equipment for clothes, tent, electronics etc.