With recent tornados in the US Midwest we are reminded how important our communications infrastructure is, not just for news, but to get the right info to the right people.
For Amateurs, this means ARES, but I grow increasingly concerned that ARES has aged in ways beyond the chronology of it's members. It has aged in thinking.
Generals are always fighting the last war they won. For ARES groups in Ontario, this means hurricane Hazel, where passing short messages on forms by Phone mode would probably be oK. When all else fails - it's better than nothing - but at the time of Hazel, Ham stations represented the latest technology, far superior to the average OPP mobile radio. This is no longer the case. Sorry to burst the bubble, but ALL else is unlikely to fail.
Where we are useful, and will be welcomed by the Police, Fire and other folks that ARE in charge, is as an Auxiliary mode. This does not question or criticise infrastructure taxpayers have sunk a lot of dollars in, and it's a happy, supportive role.
We need to look beyond the Ham Radio community for inspiration - the Hacker / Maker Community is looking to support emergencies worldwide, via the internet, from the edge.
Despite the fears (hopes?) of the survivalist types, there will always be an "Edge" of a disaster zone, where normal infrastructure still exists and extraordinary volunteers are willing to staff computers providing all sorts of useful services - mapping, survivor/family connections, custom software for relief orgs - written in the moment!
Thankfully our Ontario Section Managers are looking beyond "what we have always done" and into a future where Digital Modes simplify interactions and increase velocity.
Here in Halton region, the Oakville ARES team is experimenting with D-STAR and HSMM Mesh (yes, I know the name changed marketing types, I like the old one) to provide new and interesting capabilities to our local Oakville CEMC. We are teaming with groups to our east and west to see how far we can push these digital technologies.
Some ARES members are quick to point out that, in their view, the internet is fragile and sure to fail immediately in an emergency. This of course is nonsense - The internet, or DARPANet as it was first known, was built to withstand a nuclear war. Sure, it is subject to power issues in the impacted areas, but redundancy is built in and there are always edges to a disaster - even the 2003 power outage had unaffected edges.
It is from these edges that we will show our value, passing routine traffic to relieve pressure from the emergency infrastructure and provide additional inbound information that will add to a CEMC's situational awareness.
How do we make all this happen?
First, contrary to the "professional amateur" camp's thinking, don't take ourselves TOO seriously. Golf shirts, not uniforms. No flashing yellow lights atop the family minivan. We are NOT first, second or even remotely third responders - and won't be. We are citizen volunteers with some useful skills. Nice folks with radios that can also fix stuff in a pinch.
Second, positive culture kicks the butt of "emergency planning" meetings every time. Build a group that is having fun, engaged with the community (yes I mean practicing your skills and being seen in your bright shirts at the Marathon or dog walk) and ready to take in and train as we go the "converging volunteers" we will be blessed to have in a real emergency.
Third, conversations with served agencies trump internal ARES group meetings. Get out there, get known. Refuse to be a "best kept secret". Don't rely on ARES command structure, agency agreements or RAC executives to even be a factor. Local relationships, handshakes and smiles are all that matter when things really happen. (I learned this as an important lesson from front line folks in Katrina when I worked in St Bernard Parish months later)
This is an important part of serving the community. Adapt and evolve, let's not let historical thinking make us history.