Amateur Radio Communications For Events

One of the neighboring amateur radio clubs has for years provided communications for an annual athletic event.  This year was different.  The organizers decided they no longer needed or wanted communications from the radio amateurs, opting to use the fire police.  For those who aren't familiar with the term, the fire police here are the guys who setup flares and redirect traffic when there's a fire or vehicle accident.  Ironically they don't put out fires or have any police authority.  Despite being experienced with sitting for hours on end directing traffic, the fire police most of the time don't seem to be prepared for this annual event in the hot sun, rarely bringing drinks or food for themselves, or familiarizing themselves with the event.  But I digress.

This year the club solicited volunteers for the event as usual, despite no need for amateur radio communications.  A bit of a brewhaha erupted when it was asked just what would volunteers be doing.  No one wanted to flip burgers or park cars, and rightfully so as radio amateurs want to communicate and are not called amateur car parkers or amateur burger flippers.  One would think if the event organizers needed such people, they would naturally solicit volunteers from those who are interested in the athletic event itself, not radio amateurs.

Despite not being requested for communications, the morning of the event a few hams were stationed at the usual route checkpoints as in years past giving updates to each other.  Three repeaters on two bands covering four counties were linked together resulting in a sequence of varying courtesy beeps sounding like a battle out of one of the Star Wars movies from the 70s.  An amateur stationed on the route received a question from an event participant and asked net control for information.  Net control couldn't answer the question as they had no one officially stationed at the event central command.  Later in the event a ham reported to net control that there was an injured participant and an ambulance was needed.  He was advised by net control to call 911 on his cell phone.  After phoning 911 he reported back to net control that an ambulance was in route and gave information on the injured participant.  He was then advised by net control to call the event organizer on their cell phone to relay the information.

Meanwhile, the fire police were doing their own thing on their frequency.  Unlike hams who report anything and everything from pebbles on the road to weather conditions, the fire police talk once in a blue moon and are very sparse with their communications.  They don't say a thing unless someone's dying or aliens land on the middle of the road, and then you hear something short and cryptic like "953 to County, code 33" which triggers 15 units in four counties to be dispatched and out come the flares.

It's a sad state of affairs.  The amateurs could provide much better communications than the fire police ever could and the amateurs could free them up for other things, like redirecting traffic at fires and vehicle accidents.  But the amateurs still feel the need to "play radio" and cover the event even though their help is no longer being requested, likely making themselves a nuisance in the eyes of the event organizers.  Sometime it's just better to stand down.

I'm not an expert at providing communications at events, but having organized communications for several events for our club years ago, I learned a few things.
1.  Insure event organizers are aware of just what your club wants to provide.  You're an amateur radio club; your specialty is communications.
2.  Clearly communicate to your club members exactly what their mission is for an event.  Members don't want to just show up for an event and not know what they'll be doing for the next six hours in the hot sun.
3.  Make sure your club members who are covering an event are taken care of.  This means having their lunch provided, reasonable shifts, and event swag such as tee shirts or hats if other event participants are receiving them.  Also, make sure they are called back in when the event is over and aren't left at their stations.
4.  Provide value for the event participants and leadership.  If what you're doing isn't providing value to others and is just entertainment for your radio amateur volunteers (i.e. "playing radio"), you shouldn't be there.
There are some danger signs that should make you rethink your support of an event:
  • Event organizers are calling you a week before the event rather than several weeks or months ahead
  • Your group spends more time keeping the event running or doing things event management should have done (i.e. putting up missing signs for a race route, hauling trash, etc.)
  • You have been asked to park cars or do other non-communications functions and event leadership doesn't understand the value of communications
  • The event lacks a central control point or the event organizers aren't interested in the information you're relaying during the event
  • Another group has been asked to support the event simultaneously and they have their own radios and frequencies (I had this happen at an event with a group of guys with FRS radios.  An event participant was injured and 911 was called by two parties, and two different ambulances were dispatched.)
  • The event lacks leadership or you have difficulty communicating with the event leader in the weeks leading up to the event
  • You have increasing difficulty getting club members to commit to covering an event

Anthony Good, K3NG, is a regular contributor to and writes from Pennsylvania, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

One Response to “Amateur Radio Communications For Events”

  • Erik Bagby N4XTS:

    So sad, but true. The atypical ham *refuses* to anything but jockey a radio, yet these are usually the same folks who spew the trite and cheesy mantra about “ham radio saving the day” and this is the justification for our occupation of valuable radio spectrum, citing all these countless of man hours donated by radio amateurs providing a valuable community service.

    This may have been true 25 years ago, but with the proliferation of cellular, Nextel, FRS/GMRS and countless other commercial systems available at low cost to the public at large, the need for amateur radio “communicators” has waned to a level of obscurity.

    Yet the amateur community seems to have dropped the ball and not adapted to become a more viable community volunteer resource. The lack of support you experienced is not unusual, same can be said for a major event I’ve been coordinating for over a decade in Atlanta.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that many hams are only interested in serving themselves. Sad part is, this is going to be our own undoing. It won’t be a big spectrum grab, or UPS, or anyone- but hams writing themselves into history by not getting involved and doing the work needed to remain viable.

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