An EmComm moment?
Proud to say amateur radio operators appear to have been a measurable help to the relief effort for Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria. Even Winlink was useful. Events of this magnitude provide an opportunity to learn from the actual people on the ground. No event this size is without drama and the amateur radio response appears to not be an exception. Individualism was a key to success given what we learn below.
What press releases have to say
Here are some ARRL press releases showing the polished version of the amateur radio relief effort for the American Red Cross.
- “Force of 50” Volunteers’ Puerto Rico Hurricane Recovery Mission Ends
- American Red Cross Hails “New Partnership” with ARRL Following Puerto Rico Deployment
What actual participants had to say
The video below is very long, but one well worth watching. It is a study of many human factors in less than ideal conditions. It reveals what worked well and what did not. Pop some popcorn.
- The response from DX Engineering and other companies to outfit the radio to-go kits appears to have been spectacular.
- The standardization of radio, laptop and programs meant all operators could help each other with operational issues.
- There may have been managerial conflicts between the Red Cross, FEMA and ARRL at various moments during the three week deployment.
- Operators with a can do attitude are just as, if not more, important than simple radio operating skills.
- Accusations of “going rogue,” heard through the grapevine, conflict with the testimony in the video.
- Propagation prediction tools not particularly useful.
- Sometimes the European Winlink RF node was the only choice. Winlink via telnet was the norm.
- Despite sunspot minimum, 17 m to Texas often worked.
- Flexibility is key. Nothing goes as planned.
- Someone allegedly tricked one volunteer, Jeremy, to cut short his allegedly rogue behavior (just can’t make this stuff up).
- Jeremy was recalled from the hospital on Culebra by, allegedly, some sort of disagreement between ARRL folks and the Red Cross.
Winlink over RF was used with some measure of success when telnet wasn’t available, but NS0S offers an important highlight.
“One issue we had is winlink is very slow. People would reply in line to messages. This would make emails twice as long. Our closest node was 2000 miles away even though we asked repeatedly for something closer. If we could connect it would start downloading. After 10 minutes it would error out and we would have to start the whole process over.”
Ever growing thread replies are bad enough on Internet forum sites and email reflectors, but are crippling on any low bandwidth protocol. That operators had little desire to trim superfluous content shows a remarkable lack of situational awareness and management of a finite resource.
The term “rogue” continues to pop into the post review of this mission. On the one hand some suggest a few of the operators working for the benefit of the Red Cross “went rogue” by talking with US Senator offices, etc. On the other hand some suggest hams at the “HQ” defected (went rogue) to the late arriving FEMA contingent (SHARES?) leaving the Red Cross down a few volunteers. Knowing where to place your allegiance is key and I suspect the entity paying for your transportation deserves this loyalty. Things can change quick in the real deal though.
- Michael Smith’s (N5TGL) photos on flickr.
- Wey Walker’s (K8EAB) 35 minute video on YT.
- The low S/N Reddit thread relating to this topic.
- A slightly higher S/N Zed Thread.
- Redditnet Guide to Extreme EmComm by Jeremy (NS0S).
Other commo efforts
It is said “Kein Plan überlebt die erste Feindberührung (no plan survives the first contact with the enemy).” Something the scale of Hurricane Maria puts every conceivable relief effort to the ultimate test. The ARRL 50 (actually about 22) needed quick thinking skills to get the job done. Somewhat ridiculous obstacles were allegedly in the way. Assumptions were made with questionable basis. It’s a he said, she said situation. Michael and Jeremy’s observations certainly add spice to the glossy slick press releases from the ARRL and others. You be the judge.