31 December 2019

The EMCOMM Layer Cake, Part 1

It's been a busy couple of months. Thanksgiving and Christmas, new granddaughter, some heavy requirements at work and, to top it all off, I was asked to do some digital mode software evaluations for our local ARES groups.

For a few years I've been holding familiarization and training sessions for Winlink. In my opinion, Winlink is one of the 'killer apps' for Amateur Radio in general, and the killer app for ARES and EMCOMM work. I make no secret of my admiration for the entire Winlink system, from the quality of the desktop client software to the extent and depth of the Winlink node infrastructure. It is a robust, professionally developed and maintained communications infrastructure that you can buy into for zero bucks. If it were up to me I'd make a high level of demonstrated Winlink proficiency a minimum requirement for ARES membership. If you can't prove that you can be up and running and sending ICS formatted message traffic via Winlink within 30 minutes of arrival at an EOC or other EMA location (fire station, etc.) then just don't bother showing up. So hold on to this thought for a bit.

What I've really been focusing on since November is a fairly new digital mode package called JS8CALL. I won't get too deep into the particulars about JS8CALL - it deserves its own blog post. I'll just say that JS8CALL seems to offer some real promise for EMCOMM work. JS8CALL is a low speed, weak signal free text communications tool, inspired by the FT8 protocol but modified to be able to handle longer message strings. As the developer, Jordan Sherer, KN4CRD, says, "JS8 is the mode, JS8CALL is the application". At work I spend a lot of time and money on software development. I don't do it myself, I pay developers to build focused applications that meet real world needs. I can spot good software a mile away. JS8CALL is really good software.

So what? There's lots of slick software out there for ARES to use. The real question is, does JS8CALL fill a real world need? Or if it's adopted will it end up being just another another ARES EMCOMM 'toy', fun to play with but fills no real need, or fills a need but falls short on performance?

So here, dear reader, is the real subject of this series of blog posts: what do our primary supported agencies - county and state EOCs and incident command posts - really need that they can't provide for themselves? What communications capability do most of these agencies lack and, in most cases, don't even realize they need? And how can ARES fill that gap?

Identifying real-world EMCOMM requirements gaps requires a needs assessment done in conjunction with emergency management agency (EMA) directors. Each EMA's needs will be slightly different, so it's important to sit down with the individual directors and go over their communications plans to see just where ARES can fit in. The killer question to ask each director is this: what happens in an unlikely but still plausible 'very bad day' scenario like Hurricane Maria - a scenario where all of your comms systems go dark, even for just an hour or two? No repeaters, no phones, no internet. What do you do then? How do you reach outside of your county to get critical information to adjacent county or state-level EOCs? I think we can make an accurate educated guess about the answer to this question.

Since Katrina, the professional EMCOMM community at the federal, state and local levels have made great strides in both expanding and hardening their VHF and UHF communications infrastructure. These guys and gals are good at what they do, and they take their jobs very seriously. The average EMA communications infrastructure in any county in the US is far more robust and capable than anything Amateur Radio can provide. Our UHF/VHF repeater-based services are crude and out-dated by comparison. In this realm we don't bring anything to the table that the average EMA doesn't already has, in spades.

It's also ludicrous for us to think that our Amateur Radio repeater infrastructure will survive any 'very bad day' event. If hardened EMCOMM systems go dark, ours will too. Consider this - in my county we have several Amateur Radio EMCOMM repeaters sitting on public service towers owned by state and county agencies. These repeaters are tied into the same power sources as the EMA systems on the same towers. If any of those tower sites go dark then everything on that tower goes dark, including the Amateur Radio repeaters. Many would say "yes, but there are other repeaters in the county on private towers that we can use!" Well OK - how many of those repeaters would survive a Maria-level storm event? Or an F1 tornado? Or a heavy flood? Or the owner forgetting to charge the back-up batteries?

The one operating mode that can answer the capabilities gap question is low-band HF (the high frequency 40, 60 & 80 meter bands). HF using NVIS antenna configurations can reach into the next subdivision, into the next county, into the next state, all while operating completely off-grid and independent of other systems. In addition, the newly created 60 meter interoperability channels give local, state and federal agencies a dedicated HF 'chat space', a place on the HF spectrum where everybody knows everyone else will be monitoring. HF is that last ditch, everything's else has gone dark, communications tool.

But very few (if any) local EMAs have organic HF capability. It simply isn't in their communications mix. For decades the federal government and the DoD have de-emphasized HF communications and pushed virtually everything over to point-to-point UHF and VHF (and SATCOMM for the feds with a lot of our tax dollars to throw around). The state and local EMCOMM communities just naturally followed along. HF communications systems were viewed as finicky, requiring special skills, radios and antennas, and reliability was too dependent on propagation. The emphasis in the EMCOMM world was to simplify - all an EMCOMM operator should need to do is press the PTT switch on an HT and all the magic takes place behind the curtain. Delivering that level of service is how Motorola became a multi-billion dollar company.

But starting with Hurricane Katrina, then Super Storm Sandy and then Hurricane Maria, the federal and state governments realized that it isn't just possible, but highly likely, that most point-to-point communications would go down during a catastrophic weather event like a hurricane. EMCOMM agencies worked to harden existing systems and build greater redundancy, but they also realized that HF, while imperfect, could give them the off-grid, short and long-haul comms capability they badly need in the hours immediately after a catastrophic event. This realization is what led directly to the creation of the federal government's SHARES program. For its part the DoD started pushing HF capability back into the force structure, mainly in the National Guard which has primary responsibility for civil/military interaction during disasters. There's even a renewed emphasis on the Army MARS program with a corresponding move to an all-HF infrastructure.

We can see the need, but just how would HF communications fit in to a local EMA EMCOMM support plan? We'll tackle that in Part 2 as we circle back to Winlink and JS8CALL, so stay tuned!

W8BYH out (for now)

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