Local FM Repeaters Can Save Lives

Jim, AD0ZM

It begins like any ordinary day, then the alerts start coming in. The exact cause isn't important—it could be a wildfire, an earthquake, or a weather event, but in the affected area, text messages arrive, phones ring, and urgent emails make sounds as they hit our inboxes. It is some type of incident, and amateur radio operators are mobilized as part of the local Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) group to provide emergency communications for their partner agency. One of the first things the responders do is check-in on the local repeater for a situational briefing. This is the first of several roles that local repeaters often play in EmComm response.

Of course, the training and planning for this emergency response started months, even years, ago. One of the first items on the EmComm planning agenda was to secure access to that repeater for use during an emergency. The local ARES group worked with the owner of the repeater to draft a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU), authorizing the ARES team to 'take over' the repeater if needed during an emergency response. Why is this access so critical?

During an emergency, modern Incident Command System (ICS) protocol looks at three 'zones': the immediately affected area, the surrounding area used for staging, support, and sheltering, and the wider area from which resources are drawn. Local repeaters fit into emergency response in two of these zones, and in some circumstances can fit into the third.

The innermost zone is the area where the actual response is taking place—it can be relatively small in the case of a fire or flash flood, or it can cover miles in the case of a wildfire, earthquake, or hurricane. Much of the radio traffic in this zone may be simplex communications between radio operators assigned to Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), but when they need to work with the incident command post, the local repeater is the workhorse. With a good antenna on a high tower and a more powerful transmitter than a hand-held radio, the repeater is the lifeline. This is also where the hundreds of hours of training and practice pay off. Whether it was testing equipment and practicing net protocol on a weekly ARES radio net, or running communications for a local event such as a bike race or a county fair, the radio operators know how to use the repeater for EmComm.

Surrounding the actual incident response zone is the support zone. This is where the incident command post is established, where information is collected and analyzed, and where instructions and orders are sent out to the field units. In this zone, ARES responders use the repeater to relay information from shelters about occupancy and supply needs, gather reports from search units indicating which sectors have been cleared, and direct medical teams to where they are most needed. This increase in traffic can overload a single net, so it is common practice to set up task-specific nets using multiple local repeaters. A resource net on one repeater tracks people and equipment, a command net on another repeater gathers field information and distributes instructions from the Incident Command Post (ICP). In addition, other repeaters or gateways may be used for relaying longer, more detailed messages such as shelter status reports or supply lists. Rather than tie up a command net, responders may use digital modes such as Winlink to send standardized forms from a shelter to a Red Cross regional warehouse, for example.

Finally, there is the wider area: neighboring counties or states from which additional resources can be requested. Though you might think that traditional ham radio repeaters do not fit the bill here, systems of linked repeaters allow ham radio operators with nothing more than an HT to transmit across multiple states to relay information and make requests. In Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Ham DMR repeater network spans from Cheyenne, Wyoming, across Colorado, and down to Albuquerque, New Mexico, using linked local repeaters, all accessible from an HT.

That local repeater has a lot of work to do beyond the everyday use by hams to catch up on news, synchronize travel, and pass messages. It is important to keep these local repeater systems operational. While some emergency response groups have the luxury of owning their own repeaters, many rely on agreements with local ham radio clubs to provide access to these critical components. Keep that in mind when it's time to pay your annual dues to the local ham club—those dues may well save someone's life.