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Public service season

For the NSRC, fall has become one of our biggest planned Public Service seasons of the year. I say planned, because these events support various causes and are all well planned out in advance. Contrast that with events that are less predictable (Katrina, tornados, etc.). When I worked for the Red Cross as a volunteer, I was grateful to the 40 or so people from around the Chicagoland area who supported our little communication truck, the ECRV. Since then, the Red Cross has abandoned that strategy for other solutions, but our team was composed largely of ham radio folks! I learned then that ham radio people can be trusted to do big things.

I am very pleased to be leading the support for Evanston Bicycle Club’s North Shore Century and Bank of America’s Chicago Marathon. Both present challenges, technically and physically. But what they have in common is the need for good volunteers.

For the bike event, we were asked to help them with a problem. They had no way to keep in contact with their SAG drivers (these are the folks who drive along the course and help distressed cyclists.) Our first year, we observed how they did their work and realized that indeed, no one answered their phones! We put together a radio network, then an APRS network and now we have a very sophisticated dispatching program that we are unveiling this year. We have nearly 30 hams who work alongside the 16 or so bicycle club volunteers to support the 2000 riders, so we have become critical to their event. The best part of it, though, is that these folks have come to see what ham radio can really do…and we can do what we do because we have seasoned pros who are dependable.

For the Marathon, the year after their huge hot weather meltdown (they had to close the course due to a hot weather emergency), they started to look for better ways to manage their course-wide communications. Other marathons had used ham radio operators with varying success…and reluctant as I was to step up, we accepted the assignment to help. Kate Saccany, Jerry Martin and Craig Dieckman and I took on the task of building a support team even though we had no idea what we were doing, where we would get volunteers or what resources were available. We quickly found plenty…repeaters, clubs, and trained volunteers (trained in Emergency Communications or who had taken the FEMA ISC courses). Over the years, we have proven to be a dependable team, so much so that they keep asking us to take on more responsibilities. Our work has even been recognized publicly by FEMA officials who were assigned to observe our work

I have been eager to support all of these events because I think it has given a public face to ham radio. Certainly for the Marathon, the Chicago EMA, Police and Fire Departments have seen a different face of ham radio—people willing to serve, willing to accept responsibility and who understand command and control. Clearly, the Marathon is a very serious undertaking, but I have loved what we have done and extremely grateful to the 115 hams from 4 states who support this event. That said, we always are looking for people. With that many people involved, there is always about a 25% drop out rate, year to year. This year, the NSRC is one of the lead organizations, both in providing leadership and volunteers. But we have clubs from as far away as Peoria joining in as well. This is a team effort. In fact, there are people from 11 different clubs represented.

For a while, using ham radio for public communications had been abandoned in the public service sector. Part of the issue was our own doing…too many hams thought they had total control over the emergency communications scene…but then cell phones, the web and other products basically rendered us useless to many groups. Fortunately for us, many institutions are beginning to rediscover what ham radio can mean to their organizations, and so we have been given a new opportunity to show that we can be useful. It does mean that we have to be mindful of our client’s goals. We serve…not the other way around…is the new mantra.

Meanwhile, the word has gotten out and I have been asked by countless other organizations to help them as well. It is difficult to say no! But we have to be selective with our time and talents sometimes.

I support the Marathon because I am a huge Chicago booster. I think the event is good for the city, ham radio and emergency communication.

If you have an interest in helping with any of these planned events, drop me a line. As for the unplanned events, the best thing is to become engaged with a local EMA office, or served agency. They are all looking for good volunteers.

73 Rob