Amateur radio (also called ham radio) is the use of designated radio frequency spectrum for purposes of private recreation, non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, and emergency communication. The term "amateur" is used to specify persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest, and to differentiate it from commercial broadcasting, public safety (such as police and fire), or professional two-way radio services (such as maritime, aviation, taxis, etc.). Amateur radio operation is coordinated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and licensed by national governments that regulate the technical and operational characteristics of transmissions and license individual stations with an identifying call sign. In the United States, amateur radio operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under Part 97 of its rules.Prospective amateur operators qualify for a license through written examinations that test for their understanding of key concepts in electronics and FCC amateur radio service regulations. Amateurs use a variety of voice, text, image, and data communications modes and have access to frequency allocations throughout the Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum to enable communication across a city, region, country, continent, the world, or even into space. An estimated two million people throughout the world are licensed amateur radio operators. In the United States there are over 700,000 licensed hams. All amateur radio operators are volunteers by choice and by law. The FCC rules prohibit compensation of any type for the use of amateur radio frequencies.Amateurs supplement rather than replace existing public safety and commercial communications facilities. They are not professional communicators or emergency first responders, but they do strive to approach their volunteer service with a high level of professionalism. Amateurs generally have the skills and personally-owned radio equipment necessary to provide effective backup or supplemental communications at times when normal public safety and commercial communications systems are busy with mission-critical traffic, are overloaded or are otherwise insufficient for the mission. When well-trained, the typical technically-oriented Amateur Radio Operator can prove to be a useful asset in filling the gaps in normal communications systems and excels at flexibly responding to changing communications conditions and needs. An example of such an application of Amateur communicators is to relay logistical communications traffic in order to keep emergency radio systems available for actual emergency traffic.Because Amateurs have radios that are frequency-agile across the radio spectrum, they are able to establish ad-hoc communications links between officials who may not otherwise have a radio system in common locally and nationally.
Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Authorization and Organization
Part 97.1 of the FCC rules state in part:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.Two national programs have been formed to fulfill this requirement. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). These services consist of licensed amateur radio operators who are trained to provide radio communications services to civil and government agencies in times of emergency. Their goal is to help protect life and property during an emergency.Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES)
RACES is a governmental program that is authorized by Part 97 of the FCC rules. It is endorsed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Any local, county or state government may organize a RACES group. RACES may be activated for emergencies which can include natural, technological or manmade disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes, chemical spills, nuclear power plant accidents and acts of war. During all times that amateur stations are operating under RACES rules, they may only communicate with other RACES stations, and only for the purpose of conveying official civil-preparedness emergency communications.RACES is not an organization but rather a set of FCC rules that define when and how Amateurs may provide communications services for state and local government. A RACES group is headed by a volunteer RACES Radio Officer (RO) who is appointed by the served government entity. The RO may appoint a number of Assistant Radio Officers with the approval of the served agency.Amateurs may only act in an official RACES capacity when a RACES activation is declared by the sponsoring government entity. During this time, RACES members are considered unpaid employees of the government and are covered by Workmen's Compensation insurance.
RACES in Westchester County
The Westchester County ARES/RACES Group is organized as a single entity with a unified management structure. The RACES portion of the combined group is authorized by the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services (WCDES). The Radio Officer reports to the Chief of Communications and EMS. A combined response group has the advantage of being able to draw from a common pool of operators and to operate under the rules of either system to take advantage of the strengths of both to fulfill its mission. As examples, RACES is limited by FCC rules to one hour per month of training exercises. Westchester County provides a budget for equipment and facilities for operation and training to the RACES entity.There are approximately 100 active members in the group. The lead person is both the ARES Emergency Coordinator and the RACES Radio Officer with a team of four assistants. This leadership team coordinates the organization and training of volunteer Amateur Radio Operators who have registered their willingness to serve. RACES operators use personally owned radio equipment in fulfilling their duties.
Members are trained to provide diverse radio communications services to the county and other served entities. These include:
Mobile voice and data communications
Vehicle tracking and location systems
Ad hoc voice and data stations at evacuation shelters and reception centers
The greatest opportunity for training Amateurs to operate effectively during an emergency response is provided by the numerous charity events for which Westchester's Amateurs volunteer to provide radio communications. These include annual charitable events and public gatherings such as the Multiple Sclerosis Walk, March of Dimes Walk-America, Mamaroneck Turkey Trot, American Diabetes Association Tour-de-Cure bike ride and events outside the county in which many from Westchester are key players most notably the New York City Triathlon and the New York City Marathon. Radio communications capability for these events is provided by WECA which is long recognized as the premier club in providing communications services thanks to strong support from WCDES.The annual ARRL Field Day event in June is probably the single largest amateur radio exercise in the country. Amateur Radio clubs and individuals across the country practice their emergency preparedness skills in the form of a 24 hour radio contest. The largest such gathering in Westchester is conducted by WECA at Harbor Island Park in Mamaroneck. With strong support from the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services, and the participation of the Westchester RACES Group, the American Red Cross, the Village of Mamaroneck, and others, the Association deploys and operates multiple radio stations using emergency power under “field” operating conditions continuously for the entire 24 hour period. All expenses are borne by the Association.
RACES Radio Systems
The Westchester RACES Group uses Amateur Radio systems owned, operated and maintained by various clubs in and around Westchester County. The main system is located at the Westchester County Grasslands tower site. As required by Part 97 of the FCC rules, the system must be licensed to an Amateur Radio entity. WECA is the licensee, operating five voice repeater systems and an extensive data communications network using a mixture of County-owned and WECA-owned equipment including remote receivers, repeaters, and backup equipment. Sub-systems are located at various county and private sites and were purchased with funds raised by WECA through member dues, Association events, and private grants. All system integration, maintenance and management are performed, on a volunteer basis, by members of the WECA Engineering Team. Like WECA, NWARA and YARC make their repeater systems available to Westchester RACES at no cost. The Westchester RACES Group operates the Amateur Radio station located in the Westchester County Emergency Operations Center in Hawthorne. Operators handle voice and data communications to and from the Health Department’s Field Monitoring Teams as well as communications with RACES groups in other Counties.These services could not be adequately performed by the RACES systems without the fraternal structure inherent to a club. Clubs are a necessary adjunct to the ARES and RACES programs. They serve as support mechanisms providing both equipment and trained operators. In addition, clubs offer a wide range of activities and services to the amateur radio community, attracting hams and encouraging them to give their talents to public service and emergency communications.
What Do Amateur Radio Operators Do in Emergencies?
Depending on the nature of the emergency, hams volunteer to perform a number of functions:
• They "shadow" government and agency officials. Shadows ride along in officials' vehicles, follow them on foot and keep them in touch, typically via VHF/UHF repeater systems.
• They set up and operate base stations at shelters, command posts, emergency operations centers, agency headquarters, hospitals, and the like, providing communications among the various agencies and their officials out in the field (who are being shadowed by a ham).
• They operate in local, regional, and national radio message systems (known as the National Traffic System) which move information in the form of "radiograms" into and out of disaster areas.
• They use voice, data and image communications to deliver information about victims, supplies, etc. accurately by radio;
• They use Amateur TV to provide live video imagery to aid in damage assessment and recovery.
How Does an Organization or Agency Request ARES/RACES Services?
For governmental agencies, RACES is activated by contacting:
Michael Volk, W2MKV
Chief of Communications
Westchester County Department of Emergency Services
For civil agencies, charities etc., ARES is activated by contacting:
Tom Raffaelli, WB2NHC
RACES Radio Officer
ARES Emergency Coordinator