Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Being prepared

We Brits and our friends across the Atlantic may share a common language but sometimes it seems as if we live on different planets. One of the most obvious examples of this is that Americans sometimes seem to act as if Armageddon could happen at any minute, something that doesn't seem to cause much lost sleep over here.

Perhaps I'm jumping to the wrong conclusion based on the higher emphasis given in the USA to the use of ham radio for emergency communications. Read some issues of QST these days and you might think that "emcomms" is what amateur radio is really all about. Many American hams maintain "go kits" - portable radio stations that they keep charged up and ready to go the moment they are needed. Over here we have something called Raynet, but I get the distinct impression that it is a bunch of people who would like to use ham radio to help in an emergency rather than a volunteer emergency service on the lines of, say, Mountain Rescue that has a clearly defined purpose and meets a genuine need.

In his latest blog "Smoke Curls" Jeff, KE9V recently posed the question of whether a portable QRP HF station was really useful in the context of emergency preparedness. Most of the replies seem to illustrate the extent to which the thought of a major disaster is never far away from the American consciousness. My comment that the only benefit I could see in having battery powered HF ready to use was so I could take advantage of the noise-free bands while the power is out - which in fact I did during the outage that occurred during the local floods a year ago - probably seemed rather flippant, though that wasn't the intention.

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. 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. As for needing HF or any other kind of ham radio for personal emergency communications I still feel the likelihood of something happening in which my radio gear might end up being my only means of getting in contact with anyone I needed to is so remote that I'd cross that bridge if I ever came to it.

I would never assemble a "go kit". And if I did, I know for sure that I would forget to charge the batteries or raid it for parts I needed for something else so it would never work in the unlikely event it was needed.

Is there a cultural difference between us and Americans in this regard, or is it just me?


Paul Stam PAØK said...

Hi Julian, I agree with your point of view. I think the English and Dutch culture are similar, in a way. 73 Paul

James said...

I live in the states. I strongly feel that there is too much emphasis on it also. I'm far more interested in technical aspects and pushing the envelope. It seems like a lot of people think they have to be ready for red dawn or another mega-blackout or some other situation.

Phil Terkoff said...

I'm usually not slow to criticise the US mood of paranoia (although we Europeans seem to be doing a good job of catching up at the moment), but I think we should remember that the UK could fit into a small corner of the United States, and most of Europe would also fit in quite comfortably. Plus, the States has vast areas of very sparsely populated country with very little government or military presence. Couple that with a mentality that distrusts government in general, and you come up with a heightened willingness to 'go it alone' in the event of emergency. Hurricane Katrina was a fine example of how the official emergency response was, provably, woefully inadequate, and I think you'll find that emergency comms were frequently provided by teams of amateur operators often working in hard conditions for long hours. I lived in W6 for nine years and learned that we Brits have much more in common with fellow Europeans' mentality than we do with the general US mentality, and that it is not a matter of our being right and their being wrong, but rather an example of a huge cultural divide that the similar language in our case only obscures.


GW0KIG said...


I am also a believer that emergency communications should be left to the professionals. It is for this reason that I have never supported RAYNET.

73 Kevin

goody said...

Well Julian, it all started when some monarch decided to heavily tax our tea :-) But seriously, there are several factors at work here. Geography is a big one. We have some very rural areas and you have to be self-sufficient in disaster situations in order to survive. Also, our political landscape can't function without an enemy. When I was young that was the USSR and we all had the threat of a nuclear holocaust drilled into our heads. Some of that Cold War mentality lives on today. Another issue is this armchair patriot movement that has sprung up along with militias who think they're going to protect us from the government. I'm more worried about these so-called patriots than the government, and if some fringe group decides to make history, you need to be prepared.

If the big one hits, the amateur rig will be in the SUV when we evacuate, but setting up an emcomm command unit to check into a traffic net to trade signal reports with "Bob in Texas" won't be on my agenda.

Sam Tyree said...


I think there are several factors you need to understand why Americans are more prone to being prepared.

First, our history, which spans a very short time as a nation, is made up of people pushing back frontiers. That frontier mentality is still very much alive.

It is true, as another poster mentioned, we have innate distrust for authority. That started about 230 years ago.

Also, our weather here tends to extremes. Our weather in the midwest will range from -23 to 42 Celsius in a given year. We have floods, dust storms, ice storms, tornados, and thunderstorms by the bushel basket.

I've had to take showers in a house that was -6 celsius because an ice storm knocked out the power for a week. Thank goodness our water was heated by gas, so I didn't have to take cold showers. I sure dressed fast though. I've seen two towns that were destroyed by tornados, Greensburg and Andover in Kansas.

Katrina showed how bad things could get and how slow government response is, so we feel its best to be ready when the fecal matter hits the rotating oscillator. We also don't hold "experts" in the same regard as you do.

And not in the least, we are still at war with the Al Qaida. We took a hard punch on Sept. 11. We are pretty sure they would like to do something like that again.

Hams all over the world ARE helping the authorities in crisis situations. Heck, even a little girl Ham helped out during the aftermath of 9/11.

I must admit to some perplexity that a nation that was "Blitzed" a generation, or so, ago wouldn't have a more positive attitude toward being prepared.

In all respect,

Fenris said...


I don't wish to be confrontational, but can you tell me roughly how many Americans die every year in road accidents?

I'm pretty sure that it will be many times the number of deaths on 11th September 2001 in exactly the same way that the 52 people killed in London on 7th July 2005 is small in comparison with the roughly 3,000 people who die on the roads in the UK every year.

My attitude is that the price of freedom is that you might die when some nutter chooses to do something stupid while removing themselves from the gene pool but that the probability of it being you is very small, so accept it as a hazard of living.

In the meantime it seems to me that Al Quaeda has managed to provoke our leaders into making us do many things that are a direct affront to freedom and that this is a bad thing for good sense.

What these people who attack us really hate is that we can do much of what we please and they cannot because they are gripped by a religion and a cultural view that wants to enforce conformity on everyone. Perhaps our attempts to change their politics are not sensible, but when I see what say many of them (particularly women) have in their lives I think that we ought to try.

Enough from me, probably not the place to discuss this in any major way but I hope you can see where I'm coming from :)



goody said...

Brian, for the most part I agree with your post. Ironically I've seen the annual highway deaths argument used to downplay the number of US troop casualties in Iraq. But when you apply that to the WTC deaths the argument is turned around to one of national pride and avenging those who lost their lives. Logic and reason don't live in this country anymore.

But I think Al Queada could care less about our freedoms. If it did bother them, they would be attacking many more countries around the world. Undoubtedly they would love to have a worldwide theocracy / Islamic state, but I doubt that's their primary goal. If their land wasn't occupied and manipulated by the West in the pursuit of oil, most of the Middle East would be another poor third world area that you wouldn't hear much out of. But it's politically incorrect in the US to say that our foreign policy is one of the factors involved in 9/11.

Sam Tyree said...

I'm not sure where I went wrong here....

All I stated was that Ham radio played a part in the rescue efforts after 9/11 and might be called upon to do so again, among other events that may occur.

That's it. Nothing else. No other agenda.

How the heck did my little comment on being prepared become a political rant??????

NormfromAZ said...

Volunteer have played a important role right there in Britain. Have you forgotten WWII? And what about all that Amateurs have done for those in Haiti? No Amateur Group here in the US is "forcing" American Amateurs to join Emergency Groups, being a truly free country you are free to do what every you want on the Amateur Frequencies. Volunteering to help others is up to you.

Chip said...

I've never lived in England or Europe, so I don't know about their mentality. I can say that our attitude is well founded. The oft cited Katrina is a good example, as are several other hard-hitting hurricanes (i.e., Andrew). Sure, there is a good chance that most of the time we won't be needed and professionals will fill the bill better. But if they fail and we're not prepared then it will be much worse then if we at least try. From my experience, those professionals rarely have the level of backup we have. Events like Field Day are examples of what we can do when the entire infrastructure is damaged (most of us setup from scratch each time).

But to each his own. As long as some of prepare then there will be some ready to fill the gap should it happen. And if not then no harm, no foul.