Ham Radio Public Service Activities – Rewarding And Useful

“Hi! I’m Rud, Kilo Five Romeo Uniform Delta.” That’s me introducing myself at a ham meeting. Ham radio operators kid that we don’t have last names, we have call signs.

Becoming an Amateur Radio Operator (ARO), our more formal name, is not difficult and opens a world of interesting activities, including hacking. As with anything new, becoming actively involved with an existing club can be daunting. The other hams at a meeting are catching up with their buddies and often seem uninterested in the new guy standing nearby. Some groups will invite new members to stand and introduce themselves early in the meeting, which helps break the ice.

Regardless of how anyone else acts at the meeting there is one ham who is always looking for someone new – the ham who manages public service events, where amateur radio operators help establish communications for large public gatherings. These can be local bike rides, walks, or runs; I’ve even seen hams working an art show. In the nomenclature adopted since 9/11, these are “planned incidents” in contrast to “unplanned incidents” like hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, snow storms, and other natural or man made disasters. Working planned incidents is training for unplanned incidents when that need arises. The basic activities for AROs are the same.

Here in the Houston there are two very big events that enlist hundreds of hams. The big one in January is the Houston Marathon. The other large event is the Houston to Austin Multiple Sclerosis 150 (MS 150) mile bike ride in April. That event starts on Saturday morning, takes a break mid-way on Saturday evening, and finally wraps up late on Sunday evening. Starting in the fall there are warm-up events for the Marathon and in the late winter bike rides to prepare riders for the MS-150. There are also other marathons, Iron Man races, walks, runs, and races throughout the year. Wherever your are, there are probably events nearby and they can always make use of your radio capability.


Public service events are a great opportunity for new hams with Technician class licenses. This class typically uses frequencies in the 2m VHF and 70 cm UHF bands because the radios are the easiest to obtain and learn to use. While Technicians do have access to the 6m and 10m bands, with limited continuous wave (CW or Morse code) privileges in the lower bands, getting started on them requires the assistance of an Elmer – a long standing term for a ham who helps others get started.

VHF and UHF frequencies are line-of-sight, except under extreme atmospheric conditions, so repeaters are used to expand coverage. Public service events generally use repeaters to cover the area of the event. They are also used during emergency operations. Or some small events may just use simplex — direct radio-to-radio connections — which is good training for unplanned incidents if the repeaters are not operating.

A typical race or ride is many miles in length. Along the route there will be rest stops or break points where the participants get drinks and food – literally on the run for a marathon or Iron Man event. Each break point needs a ham in case of problems with the setup of the area or participant mishaps. If a participant is having a medical problem emergency services provided by the event organization needs to be notified.

The amateur-developed Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) is frequently used to track vehicles as they travel along the course. Since ARPS uses either 2 meter or 70 cm frequencies a Technician can operate an APRS station. You can even get smart phone apps that use the phone’s GPS to provide APRS tracking over the cell phone network. You still need to be an amateur radio operator to use these apps since the APRS message may eventually be sent via a packet radio digital repeater, called a digipeater. Creating an APRS or a packet radio station is a good hacking opportunity providing experience with micros, digital signal processing, and radio frequency design. AROs are the only individuals in the US who can build radio transmitters and use them without obtaining certification by the Federal Communication Commission.

In an event like the MS-150, there are hams riding in first aid vehicles, ambulances, SAG wagons (a term of unknown origin that some suggest means Special Assistance Group but others feel it just indicates they pick up ‘sagging’ participants), and supply trucks. If the weather turns nasty, buses may be enlisted to transport the large numbers of participants who cannot continue. Most of the vehicles have a ham riding with them so they can be directed to a point of need and to report the severity of problems when appropriate.

At public service events, a new ham learns the discipline of working on a directed net. With dozens of hams all using the same frequency it would be chaos if they all talked at once. In a directed net one operator serves as net control and coordinates communication. A typical exchange might be:

Net Control this is Breakpoint Three.

This is Net. Go ahead Breakpoint Three.

Net, we have three riders who need to be SAGed to the next breakpoint.

Breakpoint Three, SAG 4 just left Breakpoint Two for your location. It’ll be awhile before it gets there but it’s on the way.

Understood, Net. This is K5RUD, clear.

Net Control, [gives call sign], clear.

For larger events, like the Marathon or MS-150, there are nets on different frequencies, each with a specific purpose. For instance, an event might have a medical net and with its own net control operation separate from the logistics net for breakpoints.

WARNING – heavy acronym territory ahead; another challenge for newcomers breaking into ham radio.

When-all-else-fails-logo-copyI mentioned earlier these events are referred to as “planned incidents” using nomenclature adopted since 9/11. This brings all incidents under the National Incident Management System (NIMS). A number of problems occurred during the response to the tragedy in New York City that led to the development of NIMS. You may have noticed there was no use of code words in the exchange I illustrated above. Previously, the Q code, QSL – “can you acknowledge receipt?” – might have been used. The problem that occurred at 9/11 was first responders – police and other emergency personnel – were using codes that had differing meanings which led to great confusion. Under NIMS, all communications is supposed to be in plain English.

NIMS also introduces the Incident Command System (ICS) which originated in California with fighting forest fires. A prime focus of ICS is identifying who is in charge and the chain of command. There is one Incident Commander with subordinates in charge of specific aspects of managing the incident. By following NIMS and ICS everyone responding to an incident, especially an unplanned incident, knows where they fit in the operation. The same is true today of hams who are now included in many local incident plans. Public service events can, and should be, organized along the lines of ICS. Local first responders may even require formal documentation following NIMS before giving approval for an event.

Ike UnitedWay

The formal ARO group for unplanned events is the American Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). An ARES groups is typically organized by county and interacts with local authorities to respond when needed. As a participant in ARES in 2008 after Hurricane Ike, I worked with our county United Way to check on the distribution of supplies through the Food Bank.

Hams throughout the county, even those not affiliated with ARES, provided information on supplies — like the location of open gas stations. Other members of ARES were in the county emergency operations center. One of the training events for the county ARES, in conjunction with a local club, is an Iron Man event whose bike ride portion passes through part of a National Forest where cell phone coverage is minimal.

I got started with the MS-150 race in Houston back in 1997. That introduced me to a large number of hams who still know one another today even though I have moved some 40 miles away. We still meet at public service or other events. For instance, I ran into the ham who organized the 1997 MS-150 at the recent Houston Mini-Maker Faire. We chatted for awhile and then moved on knowing we’d see each other at another activity, possibly years from now. Public service events are great for using our radios, helping others, and meeting a terrific group of hams.

19 thoughts on “Ham Radio Public Service Activities – Rewarding And Useful

  1. This type of public service used to be something I very much enjoyed as a ham. It gave me mic time and communications skills that helped my confidence immensely as a new ham.

    Unfortunately, as you mention in your article, many hams organize into ARES groups that are linked with local authorities. At that point, these “unplanned incidents” often become thinly veiled training exercises and not the public service they should be. When the relationship goes sour, as happened between our radio club and the county EMA that our ARES members work with, it can make it very difficult for a club to offer their services as a public service.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is be very careful in how “official” you make yourself as a ham when you start doing public service. In my experience, even if one completes the requisite ICS training to satisfy FEMA and other requirements, often local authorities have no interest in integrating you into their emergency response plans. With most responding agencies having their own communications systems due to the funding provided after 9/11, having hams relay communications is not considered a valuable asset to local authorities. I suggest if one wants to do amateur radio as a public service, they try to find a club that does such events independent of any other organizations.

    1. I agree with much of your comment, Ken. The attitude of local first responders toward ham radio operators is something that needs to be managed carefully. But there is an expectation from higher levels in government that ham radio operations be included in emergency planning. Another approach is through local non-government organizations (NGO). This is going to vary according to your local situation. Where I am the United Way is the lead agency for the many NGOs that need to be in immediate contact with their served population. They don’t have the communications infrastructure in place so rely on hams during those few critical days following an incident.

      1. The local police in my area have all gone to Kenwood digital radios which use nxdn, and then they run encryption on top of that, so even if you wanted to bother using DSD+ to listen in, you cannot. So them wanting anything to do with local ham operators, even during emergencies where their towers are down is laughable. They simply don’t want you on their side of the “thin blue line” and get pretty testy when anyone approaches them to offer help. And I live in a pretty rural area where you would think a bunch of good ol’ country boys could get along. But instead the military mindset has invaded our police and they think anyone who isn’t another cop is the enemy and “a threat to officer safety”. They view guys running weather nets during tornado season as “part of the problem” and have run trained storm spotters off

  2. Let’s not forget the term “whacker” when it comes to ARES members. There’s a website that won’t be mentioned here that is similar to the “people of walmart” website. In that, it ridicules the folks in the hobby who get carried away and, quite frankly “have no life”. The site operators are total a-holes themselves, but their point is taken when they point out the ‘average’ ham is (no pun intended), quite a ham…(ham being, an overweight, unhealthy individual). It’s amazing to see posts where someone is bragging about consuming junk food and sitting on their butt all day at a field day event.

    The local 2 meter/440 repeaters around my neighborhood are populated with “regulars”, aka a ‘clique’ of douchebags who pay no heed to allowing a pause between transmissions, ramble on about how great they are and everyone else sucks. It’s a complete turn off to newbies in the hobby.

    And let’s not forget Mr Blanton and the dimwits on his website posting pictures of their home “command posts”….

    Not sure who’s worse, them or the elitist ‘nix douchebags who think they’re better than anyone else because of their command of obscure command line abbreviations.

    1. So where’ the link to that people of Walmart like ARES web site. I ask as an EC & DEC in my State ARES organization & the RACES RO for my county. sounds like it would be entertaining

      1. You need to get out more often ! lol Google “hamsexy”.
        As stated, the site operators are douchebags who think their $hit don’t stink, but admittedly they do bring attention to those in the hobby that, quite frankly, aren’t going to be getting laid anytime soon (not saying that should be a goal.. unless you’re at DEFCON or Burning Man, but seriously some of the dudes out there need to shower more often… ever been to Dayton standing next to some “hams” ?)

        And let’s not go into the CB radio type chatter on some of the HF bands, and well known offenders (one whom the FCC recently levied a $25k NAL order against).

        Me, i’m just into it from the tech angle…. not interested in chit chat over HF (did that enough in the military more times than I count).

  3. Great article, Rud, and I love the call sign!

    I think that public service is an important part of being a ham, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus. It stops being “amateur” at that point. While most hams should be prepared to help out when needed IMHO, they should keep in mind that amateur radio is just a hobby and should be fun first and foremost.

    1. Public Service may not be the generally understood primary focus, however according to Part 97:

      Ҥ97.1 Basis and purpose.
      The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:
      (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

      then 4 more general provisions about furthering the art, improving the service, fostering international goodwill. This is the basis by which our frequency bands are held in reserve for the sole use (in most cases) of the amateur service.

    2. I believe it’s “amateur” when it’s done for reasons other than monetary gain.

      Yes, it should be enjoyable and not a chore. And of course, US regulations prohibit amateur radio operators from accepting compensation for operating radios. The fact that operators must be unpaid volunteers sort of automatically means that those who participate in public service events are the ones who find them to be rewarding for their own sake.

      It can be fun to volunteer your radio skills and equipment to support a charity event, help lost participants find family members, help tired participants find a ride back to start/finish line, and help injured participants get needed medical aid. Though you don’t get paid, you do get thank-yous. And you sometimes start up a conversation with an occasional person who is interested in the technology.

    3. Yes for many Amateur Radio is a hobby.However if amateur radio is seen to be more than a hobby rather than fulfilling the purpose of the radio service for being, the hobbyists could see the RF allocations they use reallocated to other groups. Where there are those who would pay good money for those RF allocations, using those allocation as and using them for more than hobbyist use is a pretty damn low cost of admission. That or forever be satisfied with the restrictions that come with the unlicensed radio services CB/FRS/MURS and WiFi. Personally I entered amateur radio for the technical part of things. While DX is fun it’s not something a pursue, if an occasional DX contact happens it happens. EMCOMM is something that I didn’t expect to take to, but I did

    4. IMO the metric that amateur radio is just a hobby and should be fun first and foremost. is something that could lead to elimination of the ‘hobby” in time. The RF spectrum is a limited natural resource that’s managed globally by treaty. Ideally natural resources should be manage for the greater good for all. In that case don’t expect spectrum t allocated to leisure time activity.

  4. I participate in my local ham club’s public service events, usually working three or four per year. I would do many more, except that family obligations keep me busy most Saturdays in the early summer, which is when most of the events we serve are held.

    My home county has probably 90% of the people living in 20% of the land area. The unpopulated portion of the county does not have reliable cell phone coverage, but has beautiful scenery. So that’s where people hold bike rides, hikes, running races, etc. Our club is in great demand for communications services on these events. My local club handles about ten events per summer, There are various neighboring clubs with about twenty other nearby events, and people often move around and work on many of these, as their schedules allow.

    It can be a lot of fun. It’s an opportunity to meet with the public, set up a portable station at an austere location (maybe using a hacked homebrew Yagi antenna to get in from the fringes of the repeater’s coverage area — bringing this back to a HaD topic), and pass messages that may be of importance. It’s an opportunity to practice operating when there are many operators, each of which thinks he’s got some important message that has to get through right now. Many of the messages are things like “Rest stop 6 needs more ice”. Many are routine sag requests. But we do handle occasional life-threatening medical situations. Most major events have a few memorable situations develop, and there’s always something new and unexpected.

    On a crowded event, it’s vital to be clear but brief. This is a real contrast to the typical leisurely days on the 2 meter repeater when a few guys are chatting about their latest antenna construction project, or where they should meet for lunch.

    We use APRS on many events, to keep track of where sag vehicles are. It’s both useful and fun to be able to watch the fleet of vehicles as they drive around the course.

    Yes, as others have mentioned, there can be political issues. In our area, we have a RACES group for emergency communications, which is sponsored by the Sheriff, requires a background check, and is primarily organized to provide disaster communications in support of the local government agencies. The club that does public service events is completely separate, unaffiliated with ARES or RACES, though there is an overlap of membership and we mostly know each other and are friends. The public service events are organized primarily as public service events, not as preparedness exercises.

    1. Amateur radio’s role in both emergency preparedness and public service events is to provide communications. Participation in public services events can serve as training for emergencies. That is why participation in both ARES and RACES is encouraged. “Public Service” can serve and training for emergency communication, if the communication supplied for the event is designed to be training & the training needn’t be intrusive.

  5. While I like the ” When all else fails.. amateur radio slogan, I have a concern it promises more than more than a few place can’t deliver. There’s a fine line between overstating your abilities and understating them.

  6. Our local radio groups both HAMs and GMRS try to help the community in big and small ways. In adittion to public events they found a few local families and brightened their holiday with gifts this year. We have radio operators that provided emergency services over CB channel 9 back when every person didn’t have a cellphone in their hand and some still do. Another important service HAMs provide is weather reporting. Often I hear about things like tornadoes from our local radio net before I hear it anywhere else because our local HAMs are the people reporting it to emergency services. Most of the HAMs I talk to take public service seriously but radio is also about having fun while you learn and help. If you like hacking you should become a radio operator. Any regular HAD reader could pass the technician exam with very little studying and almost every HAM you talk to has hacked something together into an interesting project. Sure anyone can listen but once you get your liscence you get access to all of the elmers out there with years of practical hacking experience. I was surprised by how many older HAMs also have coding skills in addition to their electronics experience. I have learned so much from late night talks with people in my own community swapping knowledge, parts, and experience. Even when i don’t participate I listen to the more experienced hams in the background. Then I start Googleing when they hit a topic I never knew I was interested in. Waves will always be my favorite topic I think. Basic wave theory applies to everything from electronics to architecture. I continue to be amazed how resonance can collapse a bridge or how many small waves can combine to create a single rouge wave that can sink a ship in an otherwise calm sea. No matter what your topic is there is something for everyone in ameteaur radio. If I wanted to sum up radio in one word it would be enrichment.

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