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EMCOMM and amateur radio – what is needed and what is not

Digital Modes, General, Operating, Security, Technology, Voice Modes

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.


The Essence of Amateur Radio is not Morse Code

Digital Modes, Operating, Technology

I read a blog posting (archive of that blog post) recently that was discussing the relevance of Morse Code / CW in modern amateur radio. The gist of it was that Morse code is relevant because it is felt by many to be the “essence of amateur radio”.

While I don’t doubt that many old-timers actually feel that Morse code is the essence of amateur radio, I am forced to suggest that those same people are selling amateur radio short with that feeling. In fact, they’re denying the whole POINT of why amateur radio came into existence, and what amateur radio needs to continue forward. That is why Morse code is still relevant, but not nearly as relevant as some people believe.

It is my understanding (feel free to correct me in comments) that amateur radio came about through experimentation and learning. That is to say that people so inclined to learn about the then-new-fangled radio medium for communication started making projects on their own. Eventually, the government stepped in to control it and what we now know as amateur radio was born.

The people who started amateur radio DID NOT sit around thinking “wow, this Morse code is really cool, I’ve done it with a light, and I’ve done it on a wire, I wonder if I can do it some other way?” No, they wanted to experiment with the new wireless communication technology and Morse code was close to the only efficient way to use radio at the time. Morse was a tool that fit the job requirements of the era. The essence of amateur radio was the gaining of knowledge, the advancement and exploitation of new technology and communication. It is my belief that this definition of the essence of amateur radio still applies today.

Today, the modern amateur radio enthusiast has a much larger box of communications tools to choose from. Advances in technology have given us voice and image modes. Computer advancement has given us digital modes. And, of course, there is also the venerable Morse code. Every mode has its unique advantages and disadvantages that make it appropriate for some situations and conditions, and inappropriate for others… and that includes Morse code.

The radio amateur who gets stuck on Morse code is like the old buggy driver after the advent of the automobile: sure, he can still do a job, but by not embracing the new technology he’s missing out on the richness of the activity and the expansion of his horizons that come with advancement. I’m sure that buggy driver got annoyed by all those young’ns and their fancy horseless carriages too… but that didn’t change the fact that time was marching on and the buggy driver was a quaint reminder of the past and not embracing the modern reality of transportation technology. Like that buggy driver, the radio amateur who overstates the importance of morse code misses out on the learning and new experience of other communications methods. That learning and new experience IS the essence of amateur radio.

It works the other way as well. The amateur that doesn’t pick up at least rudimentary Morse code skills is choosing the short-end of a stick – unable to operate effectively with simplistic equipment in bad conditions as Morse code permits better than almost any other mode, the completely code-free amateur’s communications toolbox is left wanting (but not empty!). On the flip side, the amateur who sticks to Morse code is left communicating in a mode that is, at common speeds of experienced operators, painfully slow for communication, requires a great amount of practice to use at those speeds, and which, in a non-disaster situation, is easily equalled in power density and propagation by inexpensive and readily available digital equipment. [edit: 3 jan 2015]  Realistically, digital equipment is available in a disaster too.  With computers becoming small and portable, there should be a laptop in any go-pack, and if if there isn’t, computers will be around and available in anything short of a nuclear blast.

If Morse code is your favourite thing in amateur radio, that’s fine. But to tell others that it is the essence of amateur radio is hubris in the extreme, and it’s living in the past. History is a great thing to learn from, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Morse code is not what defines a real radio amateur now, nor has it ever been. The ability to employ communication technology in an effective and appropriate manner under an assortment of conditions, and to be driven to learn constantly is what defines a radio amateur for the 21st century.

Let’s put Morse code in the communications tool box where it belongs and leave it there, to be used when required, and not used when there are better ways. And let’s embrace the essence of amateur radio and learn something new. If you’re a Morse enthusiast, how about learning and using a different digital mode like PSK or RTTY? If you’re a digital enthusiast, how about learning to send your Morse by hand or picking up a microphone? If you’re a phone enthusiast, how about hanging up the mic for a while and trying something different? Experimenting and learning new things, that is the essence of amateur radio.