Last night I was out doing the ham radio thing with Flintshire Raynet. Raynet is the radio amateurs emergency network and we work with the other emergency services under the control of the County Emergency Planning Officer. We are effectively on call 24 hours a day seven days a week should we be needed. Fortunately it does not happen much that our services are required and so we keep in practice helping out at public events such as fun runs, charity walks, parades etcetera.
The event last night was a firework display and bonfire to raise money for another emergency organisation manned by volunteers the RNLI. The RNLI is the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and 99% of rescues at sea around the UK coast are carried out by these guy and gals. They are the bravest of the brave in my opinion, because ships do not tend to get in to trouble on calm sunny days they wait until there is a hurricane blowing to break down, sink or run aground.
Flintshire Lifeboat always put on a top notch firework display and last time was no exception with thirty full minutes of wizz, bang, flash and plenty of oohs and arrs from the crowd. One of the attractions of this display compared to others in the area is the setting. The crowd gathers in a large car park adjacent to the lifeboat station which faces Flint Castle. The fireworks are fired from within the castle and every flash lights up the castle in a different way. It is very picturesque and with the explosions the imagination is transported to that of a castle under siege, or maybe that is just me being an old romantic. There was a massive crowd and crowd control was being carried out by the Police in the form of their special volunteers now called 'Community Officers' or something, volunteers from the Army cadets, Air Force cadets and the lifeboat crew and support staff. The volunteers from St John ambulance where in attendance and a firecrew some of whom are full time firemen but most of whom are part time volunteers. In fact a lot of the same faces I have seen in real emergencies.
Julian G4ILO who is someone I respect said in a recent blog post "My opinion is that emergency communications is a job for the experts and the last thing they need is a bunch of amateurs trying to help but more than likely getting in the way." I think possibly he is like a lot of radio amateurs misinformed. He also says "The Cockermouth floods were the nearest I have ever come to being directly affected by a disaster and it never even entered my head that as a radio amateur I might be able to help." I find that some what sad that he just sat there and let someone else do it.
Ask anyone who was involved with the Lockerbie bombing, when terrorists brought down a passenger aircraft over Scotland what happened to communications. They will tell you that the mobile telephone network was swamped so much that it when someone from the worlds press got a connection they kept the line open for days, making use of that form of communication by the emergency services impossible. Fire, Police, Ambulance and others were drafted in from all over the UK. The various services and services from different areas could not talk to each other because the radios were on different frequencies and the services simply did not have enough frequencies for the huge numbers of messages being passed. Fire, Police, Ambulance, Air Crash investigators, Army, RAF rescue, WRVS, and many others had to be coordinated. It was hundreds of Raynet volunteers that provided that communication and without it the whole thing would have been even made more difficult and taken longer.
When we had floods at Towyn in 1990 the then Clywd Raynet (county boundaries have changed since) played a major part in the rescue operations. Evacuees were ferried to emergency centres set up in schools and later moved to accommodation at Bodelwyddan Castle. This was a major incident and serious enough to bring Prince Charles and Lady Diana in to reassure the evacuees and thank the volunteers. Those volunteers included Raynet, St John Ambulance, Flintshire Lifeboat, Red Cross, Volunteer Firemen, Police Specials, The Territorial Army, Army Cadets, Airforce Cadets, Navy Cadets, Scouts, WRVS (Women's Royal Voluntary Service), the North Wales 4x4 club and more. Leave it to the professionals! My arse! Sure we had all the usual professional services and we had people paid to be there, such as bus and coach drivers and even the council bin men amongst others there but the volunteers out numbered the professionals by fifty to one.
More in the US than here there is a section of the ham community that thinks emergency communications groups are a joke. The problem is there will always be the wannabe cop type with a blue light and a hidden siren and the survivalist nutter for those that decry what we do to point at like some sort of overgrown school bully, but when it comes down to it they just want to do their bit. In a real emergency I have seen the most useless operator suddenly become an asset, but these days you can no longer just turn up and say I want to help. In modern times you need to be trained, and insured at the very least. Raynet provides both the insurance and the training along with a recognisable ID badge. These days there has to be procedures in place and we have to have proof that everyone has been trained. I am sure that the same goes for any amateur radio emergency communication organisation.
Amateur radio is not an emergency service but it is a tool that can be used in an emergency. It is no good saying that you do not want to join your local amateur radio emergency communication organisation but that in a real emergency you would give a hand, because you will not be allowed. If you are a radio ham you have skills that can help from time to time. Not to want to help in times of need is in my opinion as much of a sin as seeing a dying man and stealing his wallet rather than calling an ambulance.
There can be advantages to being a member of such organisations too. Last night I got to help some real heroes keep their lifeboat afloat and that gives me a warm feeling inside. I also got to see a fantastic firework display and meet some nice people who were helping make it a great event.
One last thing; One of my on air buddies works for a communications company and he does not like the idea of Raynet on the basis of it takes work away from the professionals. If Raynet were not manning say a fun run then the organisers would have to either bring in his company or hire his radios to use themselves. Where I have no problem is that we are not allowed to help out at commercial money making events. So if we man the fun run the funds raised go to the Heart Foundation, Cancer Relief or whatever charity the event supports. If his company does it a large chunk of donated cash goes in to the company's pocket instead of where it was intended. I know which scenario sits best with my conscience.
In the event of emergency who are you going to call and then who do they call? Volunteers that's who.