Radio amateurs prepare for disaster


There’s a sense of urgency in the air at a nuclear power plant in Virginia. Anything within at least five miles is in immediate danger due to critical collapse. One of the rescuers opens the envelope she is holding, scans its contents and announces the bad news: “We just lost 911 and the cell towers are overloaded.”

There are some whining, but the ham radio operator team knew it was a possibility, and they’re ready. They have their radios ready to coordinate evacuations, making sure no shelter is overwhelmed and evacuees get to the right places. Two break away from the others and walk towards the main coordinator. They act as points of contact for all emergency services, meaning they are responsible for relaying information on everything from fires to urgent medical attention to illegal activity.

It’s no small task, especially when there’s a nuclear meltdown in the background, but it’s not the first time these radio operators have tackled a problem of this magnitude: after all, Similar disasters occur every two years. This time, it was an earthquake that caused the failure of a cooling tower. Sometimes it’s a terrorist attack, or maybe a hurricane. Fortunately, none of these are real disasters: they are simulated emergency tests (SETs), disaster simulations that radio operator groups use to show typical emergency responders – the police, the Red Cross, FEMA – that when the worst happens, these enthusiasts can be a vital part of the response.

The nickname “ham” as a nickname for radio amateurs was initially an insult: professional broadcasters called these amateurs “” as malefactors. But the newly dubbed hams didn’t let that stop them. Amateur radio operation took off in the early 20th century; in 1910 there were thousands of amateur radio operators and things were getting rowdy. Poor quality work on the home radios caused disturbing signals on all bands of radio waves: the signal scattered like blobs of paint, splattering onto other nearby bands and disrupting their communications.

The volume of chatter and the potential for communications disruption led to the Radio Act of 1912, which required amateur radio operators to be licensed and limited them to using only a single short length of radio. ‘wave. About 88% of hams gave up the hobby, thinking this group was too weak and too short for them to really enjoy themselves.

Those who remained there, however, were very dedicated. In 1914, Hiram Percy Maxim discovered that you could successfully transmit radio messages over long distances if you had other amateur radio operators in the way to skip the signal. He created the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) to organize hams across the country.

Today, the United States is home to over 700,000 licensed amateur radio operators (including all of my immediate family members – I’m the only one without an amateur radio license, having failed the Level Technician test the lowest).

About 40,000 of them are part of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (or ARES, pronounced as the god of war), a subset of the ARRL. There are branches all over the country, and ARES members are the hams that show up to mock disasters, ready to relay information wherever it needs to go. They helped during disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the terrorist attacks of September 11 – they were the ones who carried the messages even after the cell towers collapsed, overloaded by the family members of the employees of the World Trade Center trying to reach their loved ones.

“Our main mission is to work with local operations to help with communications when normal means do not work”, explains Michael Corey, the national coordinator of ARES. They do this at three main levels: the local level, which would cover disasters like a nuclear meltdown; state level, which would cover more widespread threats like hurricanes; and the national level, which could involve a mass evacuation in the event of a devastating hurricane or the loss of national communications services due to space weather events.

If you live in a hurricane-prone region like the mid-Atlantic or the Gulf Coast, you’ve likely benefited from ARES’ presence. “Hurricanes tend to destroy large parts of infrastructure for short periods of time,” says Corey. “There is a window of about 72 hours where the normal infrastructure is not operating at its optimal level. During a hurricane, the hams will come in and set up these temporary networks until other backup systems can come online.

The advantages of amateur radios in the event of a disaster are twofold: they are free from large infrastructures and they are incredibly flexible technologies. “An emergency operating system might require a big generator to keep things running, but we can get by with batteries or solar power,” Corey says. If a natural or man-made disaster knocks out electricity, the internet, or phone lines, “we can establish global communications with nothing between the two systems but ether.”

* * *

Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University and a member of the Naval Academy’s Cybersecurity Advisory Board, has been thinking since 1979 about all the ways computers work (and fail). [technologies] are interconnected in a way that we don’t see,” he says, “that a longer shutdown that lasted weeks or months would be catastrophic.

A key example: global positioning systems, better known as GPS. If you were to lose your ability to use GPS to find directions, that would be a downside. But if emergency services – paramedics, firefighters and police – were to lose their ability to navigate, it could be deadly.

GPS also plays a key role in time synchronization. Power plants, for example, use GPS to ensure that their generators send out electrical currents in sync. Improperly programmed generators can lead to the burning of inoperable equipment, power outages and fires.

But the satellite system that controls these essential functions is not infallible. “A solar flare, certain types of attacks that can be made from the ground, or a hostile nation using anti-satellite weapons could destroy our satellite system,” Spafford said. “And because those require a space launch from custom-built satellites, we couldn’t just activate them a day later.” In this hypothetical disaster scenario, this translates to an extended period without cell phones or GPS coordination emergency services, and even the possibility of power outages.

The radios, however, would continue to work. “We know more or less how to do the same[s these technologies do] without technology, but we forgot how to do it,” says Spafford. “It’s called deskilling.”

In the digital age, “we have encountered a lot of deskilling,” he says. “A lot of people used to be able to remember phone numbers or have phone books, for example, now we look them up online. If it disappeared, what would we use? »

There are measures in place to make sure we don’t need to know: there are usually a few spare satellites in orbit, our power grid is smartly designed in disconnected parts. In the event of a cyberattack, an entire region (or even most of it) is unlikely to shut down, as electrical systems could disconnect from each other and continue to generate electricity.

But a more resilient infrastructure, Spafford says, would also be one with low-tech backups in place. Power outages are devastating because the general public does not know how to live without electricity. “If we had a power outage that shut down all the gas pumps for a month, the Amish would probably survive just fine,” Spafford points out. “It’s not about training them for this eventuality, it’s their way of life.”

Obviously, he’s not advocating that everyone start building solid furniture in Pennsylvania. But what he describes, a formed segment of the population that can carry on when the infrastructure fails, sounds a lot like ARES.

Radio amateurs, at least those who volunteer for ARES, are something of an antidote to Spafford’s disqualified millions. The best also use their radios all the time, so that when disaster strikes, they are ready for action.

“What makes us useful are the things we do when nothing is happening, when no big event is happening, and then using the skills we learn through regular practice to help during a crisis to add capacity and capabilities,” says Corey.

ARES member Reid Barden, 20, is one of those hams who makes a point of staying sharp. Barden is the president of the Virginia branch of the Amateur Radio Communication Association (ARCA) and the founder of the Amateur Radio Club at Virginia Commonwealth University. Several weekends each year, he volunteers at events like Special Olympics, MS Society cycling events and marathons, events that rely on teams of hams to communicate when an athlete goes missing or that a rider needs medical attention.

Volunteerism is in many ways at the heart of amateur radio. There is no commercial aspect to this hobby: the hams are not paid for their work. There’s a reason thousands of hams across the country spend their time helping out at cycling events or doing disaster drills: they need to show up to demonstrate just how essential their skills really are. The average person doesn’t like to dwell on the worst-case scenario. But when and if it does, the most dedicated radio amateurs will be ready, radios in hand, to turn an eccentric hobby into a network of lifesavers.

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