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Author Topic: Ham Radio and Search and Rescue  (Read 13616 times)

Posts: 11

« Reply #15 on: February 17, 2015, 12:45:19 PM »

I am with the Placer County (California) Sheriff's Search and Rescue Communications unit. We have a pretty good SAR team, made up of many different units. Placer County includes flat lands around Lincoln, Roseville and Granite Bay with Rocklin right on the edge of the Sierra foothills. The county seat of Auburn is further up the foothills above 1000 feet but the county goes to peaks above 9000 feet, with many ski resorts, Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley slightly lower than those peaks. With our topography of many canyons and ridges, especially through the various forks of the American River, we have a lot of communication issues to deal with; albeit, very beautiful areas. For our units, in addition to communications, we have ground searchers, motorized (motorcycles/ATV), mounted (horses), K9, 4x4, snowmobile/snowcat and mountain rescue (high/low angle rope-rescue ready group.) While it would be nice if everyone was a ham, not everyone is in to that. People pick their hobbies differently and not quite fair to say if you want hobby "A", you have to follow hollow "B" to do "A". For this reason, we don't require people become hams to join SAR. We (the Sheriff's office PLUS members of SAR Comm) own and operate about nine commercial-band VHF-Hi band repeaters and several 2-meter ham repeaters. We do not run official SAR activities on the ham channels but they are available for those that are licensed and in emergency cased by those with one of our official radios. Many SAR volunteers own and manage their own personal radios but the communications unit manages a cache of hand-held radios that we issue to searchers. We are phasing out our old Icom IC-F11 (16-channel) handheld in favor of a newer Kenwood TK-2170 (128-channel) handheld. Our 4x4 teams are transitioning from who-knows-what to Kenwood TK-7360HV mobiles; I got one myself for my personal vehicle. We have found we need more than 16 channels, which is one of the reason for changing radios; we have been adding additional repeaters and trying to program in more mutual aid channels.

As someone mentioned, we are an extension of a public safety agency; for us, Placer County Sheriff's. There are many mutual aid frequencies from both state and federal levels that we can use that are NOT ham frequencies. We dedicate a bank on our new radios for SARMARS (Search and Rescue Mutual Aid Radio System) channels (some are duplicates from our team bank) that are arranged in a state-wide standardized channel plan and another bank is set up for CARDA (California Rescue Dog Association).

In our communications truck, we have MANY radios for different purposes, including amateur radio. We have a tri-band amateur radio with 6-meter, 1.2-meter and 70cm and we have a marine radio that can do HF. 2-meter is programmed into our commercial VHF radios.

Posts: 1186

« Reply #16 on: February 25, 2015, 09:10:33 AM »

My take is to build infrastructure for the SAR group on commercial licensed frequencies.  A recognized SAR group is typically considered to be public safety when activated.  Due to that I would be also discussing access to pubic safety infrastructure for the SAR group when they are activated and doing an active search.  The hams on here will no doubt throw a duck fit that I am saying this but here's the hard truth.  Public safety equipment is typically way better maintained than ham gear because it simply HAS to work.  If a repeater owner (ham) decides that his repeater Doesn't need repaired right away, it just don't get fixed.  If a cop or fire repeater is down, then it's treated as a big deal.  Trust me, I professionally work in them and it's a BIG deal when they don't work.   The other thing to look into is a in-band vehicular repeater for your mobiles.  If you are driving into the area and then getting out to do the search work, it's a good piece of hardware to have.  And you can upgrade the power storage (batteries) on your Gator or utility 4X4 quad and run one on that.  They increase the talk out and talk in on the portable radios and give them the performance of a mobile. 

I understand the idea of using ham.  The cost factor makes it very appealing.  But the cost factor can't be the only consideration when talking about life safety
Unfortunately, most current public safety radio systems are of the trunked variety.  Our county sheriff and several police agencies in central Alabama use the technology.  TR has an Achille’s Heel that amateur and conventional mobile relay systems do not.  If the trunking controller or the trunking control channel is inoperable, the entire network of trunked nodes goes into what is called “soft-fail” mode.  Since trunking is nothing more than cellular telephones in concept, all mobiles are very low power and nodes are set so that frequencies can be reused.  It sounds nice, but if the controller fails (like it did during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans) mobiles can only talk via very low power simplex or within the node they are presently located in.

TR has been called “fair weather” radio.  That’s a good name for it.  All sorts of flexibility in calling other services and agencies, but if the controller fails, everybody loses out.  It happens and has happened many times, but the manufacturers and the FCC don’t want that known.

If you want dependability, stick with conventional repeaters and high powered mobiles.  Rugged and dependable.

Posts: 11

« Reply #17 on: February 25, 2015, 11:36:26 PM »

In this region, Sacramento County has a large 800 MHz Motorola SmartNet trunked radio system, as does my own city of Roseville. It works fairly well (I assume) for Sacramento County, as it is a relatively flat county. It also works (I assume) for Roseville, due to it also being relatively flat, with elevations primarily at the northeastern periphery. Placer County and El Dorado County, as well as most counties to our north, are too rugged for 800 Mhz systems. Placer County is attempting to set up a new P25 VHF-Hi system but it is an ongoing joke about when it will be completed and how well it will work. That being said, just because they are using trunked systems in Roseville and Sacramento counties, that does not mean they can only communicate on trunked systems; their radios are capable of conventional operation too in the band they operate on. In California, they have mutual aid channels for all bands from VHF-Low Band, VHF-High Band, UHF and 800 MHz.

In our Search and Rescue communications truck, we have two 800 MHz radios that have both Sacramento and Roseville's systems programmed in, plus the 800 MHz mutual aid channels. We then have four VHF-Hi radios with a plethora of channels... our primary radios. Two of our VHF radios will be capable of working on the new P25 system, once it is up and running. We then have three UHF radios with a couple different splits. Finally, 2 VHF-Lo radios. Each of these radios are connected to a Radio-over-IP system (Telex IP-223). We can then join channels together as needed. We could theoretically set up a radio in each band to be tied together so that when someone transmits on one band, our truck will re-broadcast that same traffic on all the other bands simultaneously; a cross-band repeater.

In the locations with 800 MHz radios, the fire departments have both 800 MHz radios and VHF-Hi radios, as that is the standard state-wide for mutual aid. CalFire (state fire department) and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services are standardized statewide on VHF-Hi with repeaters covering the entire state; due to topography, I doubt that will ever change.

Last year, I attended an APCO convention/mobile command center rally (and will again this year) in Sacramento. There was a presentation on NVIS-ALE, a multi-band HF radio system that is a "new-school" way of "old-school" communications. The presenters acknowledged that this system has many limitations but mentioned that you always need a back-up plan. They used an analogy of modes of transportation. Cars and trucks are the most common modes of transportation but because we have them, that doesn't mean that bicycles are obsolete and no longer serve a purpose. If we lose the infrastructure for automobiles, such as loose all sources of fuel, we can still get around on a bicycle faster than walking, but walking is still a back-up plan. Most in attendance are the ones that set-up and maintain communications systems for their respective jurisdictions. Most of the people in attendance of this presentation were ham radio operators, including the presenters, but the HF NVIS-ALE system was not on ham frequencies. It is designed for public safety systems.

I have recently become acquainted with our county ARES group and planning on joining them but in talking with their new EC, they seem to have a bit of an identity crisis. They want to be always ready to help by providing of their time, equipment and expertise but seldom have a real-life situation to actually put it into use. It is my opinion that where hams really need to go is toward digital communication back-up systems. We have progressed from a world where information is king. We rely heavily on the Internet and cellphone networks for many things. In a time of disaster, the disaster may take out the cellphone network or it may be bogged down to the point of being unreliable. A reliable connection to the Internet may also become unreliable during a disaster. My thought is if we focus more on how to send and receive digital messages/files over the radio, we can be better prepared for how we will be needed in a disaster.
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