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Amateur Radio EmComm as a Force Multiplier, Not a Fall-Back

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I just read a very good opinion letter in the Public Service Emergency Communications Column of the January 2012 issue of QST (pg. 81).  Al Taylor, KN3U writes that he disagrees with ARRL’s catchphrase “when all else fails” in regards to amateur radio emergency communications operations.  I never have been particularly keen on the phrase either but I never sat down and tried to write out or verbalize why.  In my opinion Taylor has done an outstanding job in explaining why “when all else fails” is not the way we as amateur radio operators, and ARES operators in particular, should present ourselves to served agencies.

As someone who has been both a provider and a consumer of Amateur Radio resources in disasters, I’ve never been fond of the catch phrase “when all else fails.” It may alienate the public safety telecom professionals who should be our natural allies. Sure, some disaster scenarios are characterized by extensive telecommunications infrastructure damage. But modern public safety infrastructure is very robust in many jurisdictions. When
failures occur, it has been my experience that they affect Amateur Radio infrastructure as well as commercial and public safety infrastructure — our repeaters tend to be located on the same towers and rooftops as our public safety counterparts! I’ve seen many instances in which Amateur Radio resources (including my own) failed miserably to perform when needed — and a few in which well-meaning amateurs who had intended to be a part
of the solution became part of the problem instead. So, why the focus on failure?

The first sentence is important to consider when you read KN3U’s letter; he’s been on both sides of the fence.  He’s been there as someone being served by amateur radio and as an amateur radio operator providing services.  Place yourself in the position of the served agency.  The “when all else fails” catchphrase is one that can be viewed as arrogant even though it isn’t intended to be. By taking the “when all else fails” outlook, we fail to emphasize what else we can do as well; even if there isn’t a failure of communications systems, we can still augment those systems – hence Taylor’s reference to amateur radio as a force multiplier.

Many EmComm operators will argue that amateur radio will in fact be there when commercial, government, and public safety systems fail. We have simplex!  We have HF!  We don’t need repeaters or trunking systems to communicate! This is true; we do need to be prepared to fill in the gaps until those systems are repaired or replaced.  On the other hand, there won’t always be full systems failures; the systems will remain in service but there will be a need to provide more communications than what they can provide.  This is where amateur radio becomes a force multiplier, augmenting the served agencies’ communications systems:

A more sophisticated view of the matter is that at the same time that the community experiences infrastructure damage, the need for communications channels grows exponentially, both within and among organizations responding to the disaster. Amateur Radio can provide a surge capability to help disaster response professionals meet the exceptional communications demands of disasters, especially if Amateur Radio is included in the
planning and training for such events. I’d like to see ARRL marketing us as a competent force multiplier rather than a last-ditch fallback. (emphasis mine)

The rest of Taylor’s letter is well worth reading, he goes on to explain how amateur radio is well suited as a force multiplier.  If you subscribe to QST, I recommend reading the entire letter on page 81 of the January 2012 issue.  If you don’t receive QST, borrow someone’s issue or read it here in the July 20, 2011 issue of the ARRL’s ARES E-Letter.  The July 20, 2011 issue of the ARES E-Letter also has some information at the end about Taylor’s experience and qualifications.

Taylor closes his letter by saying “we should be offering to partner with our professional counterparts, instead of telling their bosses and the public that we’ll be there to pick up the pieces when they fail.”  He’s exactly right.  The ARRL and those who are fond of “when all else fails” aren’t being arrogant but we need to be mindful of how that phrase can sound and especially in how it can come across in print.  It’s catchy and it can be good for recruiting but we should watch how and when we use it.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to come up with an additional catchphrase for representing ourselves to served agencies that is more inclusive of what we can offer.  Any ideas?


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