I became interested in the American Red Cross as a ham radio operator. I saw the potential to use my skill-set to help as a disaster communicator. I joined as a volunteer in 1995.
When I went on my first National disaster assignment, I found that the emphasis for Disaster Communications was telephone installation and fax machine setup. Oh, and tracking cell phones that were issued. Radio communications were used at Mass Care kitchens, for Mobile Feeding coordination and communication, but that was about it.
There were computers for each function, but a network of any sort? Voodoo magic for sure.
As I moved up through the experience levels in the Disaster Communications function, and as the 90s passed by, we started to hear talk about “Enterprise solutions”, and combining the DisComm function with the Disaster Computer function. Keep in mind, that the majority of volunteers who deployed on national disaster assignments were retirees. Remember the adage about old dogs and new tricks? Anything more difficult than a pager was out-of-bounds.
When I left the Red Cross in 2001, we had technology coming out of our ears. ECRVs, Push Kits, Satellite networking, etc.
Gone were the days of only needing linemans plyers, a punchdown tool, some RJ-11 jacks and a box of Twisted 4-pair wire. (I can still recite the 25-pair color codes.)
To remain in the function, you needed to adapt and learn new skills.
The ham radio operator who is interested in remaining useful in Disaster Communications needs to learn and adapt as well. Don’t throw away the radio, but realize that it’s not the only method anymore.
Also, Hams need to know how to interact with others in disaster operations.
Recently I ran across a posting over at Rakesh Densaer’s blog, The Digital Responder, that discusses this issue, but from a different angle.
Densaer advocates for the creation of a Disaster Technologist:
This calls for a new kind of technology responder, one whose core competency is adapting a range of technologies to the emergency environment. This is the area of the disaster technologist.
A disaster technologist should have the following skillsets…
1. Understanding of the emergency environment (e.g. FEMA NIMS/ICS courses, or others depending on response). This is a fundamental building block since a lack of this understanding means the technologist is operating out of context.
2. Expertise in multiple technology domains – equally comfortable using multiple methods and multiple modes for communicating. Why multiple domains? Because if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. What you need are people who have a toolbox full of tools.
3. Expert collaboration and problem solving skills. Disaster communications often involves improvising solutions in the field…it will be essential that these individuals are comfortable in the “Iron chef” mode where “making it work” may involve a lot of different sorts of technology and duct tape. It helps if people play well with others…
It we want to remain relevant to our served agencies/organizations, we owe it to them to learn their procedures and expectations.
True, we have a unique ability to communicate over both long and short distances, but is that enough anymore? If we stubbornly remain a square peg on a board with round holes, eventually they will find other pegs to plug into their planning holes. Pegs that are adaptable and easier to use.
Hams should put away their hammer of “When All Else Fails” and work on add more tools to the toolbox. How about being relevant before everything fails? How about being KNOWN to your clients beforehand?
Otherwise, we will be the One Trick Pony. The ones they only call for parades.
Get inside your agencies and learn their needs. Learn how to fill those needs.
Or be relegated to the supply box, next to the Biscuits, POTS and RJ jacks.