I’ve been reading a fair bit about emergency communications (EMCOMM) and amateur radio. Nominally, EMCOMM is why amateur radio exists – the service is there, hypothetically, to be able to provide backup communication paths when infrastructure fails. Certainly, for many years, that was a pretty valid position and amateur radio filled that niche very well.
But time has marched on, and with it has marched both requirements and technology. In my considered opinion, amateur radio EMCOMM is likely to come up short when the situation is dire. This is something amateur radio can overcome, but getting past the shortcomings is going to require a new way of thinking for a lot of amateur radio EMCOMM enthusiasts.
The Use Case
It is first necessary to consider what role amateur radio is going to fill in an emergency situation.
The goal of EMCOMM is to get timely, accurate communication outside of the disaster zone to a place where the regular communications infrastructure is not damaged. Barring an asteroid strike that makes a crater the size of Texas and destroys an entire continent, that communication is not going to need to be more than tens of kilometers, maybe small hundreds.
That brings about my first EMCOMM observation: HF is probably not going to factor in an EMCOMM situation because it’s awkward and unnecessary. Awkward because it needs long, difficult antennas, and propagation is unreliable. In the event of a very wide-scale disaster, then perhaps, but generally, it will be quicker, easier, and more reliable to use VHF and UHF radio to get messages out of a disaster zone because the equipment is small and much easier to come by.
Modern “first responders” – police, fire, military, para-military and medical all have reliable, effective short-range communication technology and infrastructure. Their comms channels are robust and intended to work in adverse situations. For the most part, amateur radio will play almost no part in assisting these people. It’s worth noting that, military notwithstanding, none of these essential services uses HF radio much or at all.
Secondary assistance services are much more likely to require amateur radio assistance: Red Cross, various “civilian” disaster relief agencies and so on. These are important people in any disaster, but they’re likely not well equipped in the communications department and could benefit greatly from amateur radio help. Again, however, they’re going to want to move information outside the disaster zone, and that distance is not likely to be “around the world” because there are many better ways to do that than HF radio.
I’ve tried to figure out what sort of info these agencies might want to send, and the most obvious one I can come up with is a casualty list. This is a good one because it seems both likely, and highly useful to an agency like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders, or some similar group. There might also be traditional short “Hi Mom! We’re OK!” messages, but those are generally easy to send by any convenient means.
So what does a casualty list take? Let’s consider a short list: 1500 people are at a shelter inside a disaster zone, and the Red Cross needs to send that list 75 km away to the coordination centre. The list contains “phone book” info: name, (former) address, plus gender and date of birth. If we figure the name field at 20 characters, address at 20 characters, gender as 1 character and birth date as 6 characters, and an indicator for unharmed/deceased/injured/missing of a single character, a list of 1500 people is about 72000 characters, or 70 kB, or in CW terms, 14400 words.
Right off the bat, you can see one problem. That short casualty list, using 4 operators blasting CW at 30 WPM non-stop, will take a full 2 hours to send and still require coordinating the output of the 4 CW streams at the far end. That is not acceptable in 2015. That same list, sent by D-Star at 9600 bps, takes less than 90 seconds. Even at 1200 bps D-Star it will clock in less than 10 minutes. This brings me to the second observation about EMCOMM: Morse Code is not going to be used very much if at all in an EMCOMM situation because it is too slow to carry any significant amount of useful information.
What does this mean?
The general use case of casualty lists, supply requisitions and similar information simply can’t be sent by morse code or even by voice. Modern EMCOMM needs to move small and medium amounts of data over those tens of kilometers. Possibly even image data. This simply cannot be done with traditional “Morse Code and HF” thinking, and not even with “packet” thinking.
EMCOMM groups have to start thinking about the objective, and they have to start acquiring the infrastructure and training to be able to provide useful communications. This is what I think all EMCOMM groups need to have as a capability:
1. Enough available equipment to set up a VHF and/or UHF data link that can cover a distance of about 100 km, AND link to the neighbouring EMCOMM group – effectively able to form cells of about 50-100 km in radius to be able to get communications away from the disaster zone.
2. Enough man-portable (i.e. HT or similar) equipment to be able to deploy operators quickly and keep them highly mobile. This would include easily erected directional antenna equipment.
3. The ability to move data with a speed of at least 9600 bps over the coverage area. Even faster would be better. That may mean we all have to start thinking of better ways of moving data. Guys, it’s not 1980 any more. Even 9600 is glacially slow by modern standards, and information is king in a disaster situation, but at that speed you can move decent sized text blocks around. If amateur radio can’t move enough good quality information quickly and accurately, amateur radio will be bypassed.
4. The ability to interface with existing communications channels (e.g. the internet). I assure you, the guys who can get internet connectivity into a disaster area are going to be viewed as heroes of communications because internet is *THE* communication channel used by every organization everywhere. Also, being able to patch into other networks like the phone system and drag a level of that connectivity into a disaster zone would be really helpful.
5. This is a pie-in-the-sky thing, but I’ll put it out there: The ability to assist with, organize, and direct the communications infrastructure of others – in short: trained operators who can free up firefighters, police, and maybe even soldiers by operating THEIR communications infrastructure while they go out and do the nasty work.
EMCOMM needs to look at the now and forward, not back in history. It’s time to drop HF and morse, and build up robust, portable digital communications for emergencies. That is what will be needed when the worst happens, and that’s where the expertise of highly trained radio amateurs is going to be most effectively deployed.