MCACS History

I. Introduction and Background

While MCACS is no longer strictly an “Amateur Radio” organization, Amateur Radio is where it all started. It is worth exploring these Amateur Radio roots to see how we got to where we are today.

The Amateur Radio Service—popularly known as Amateur Radio—exists in part, in recognition of “enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.” 1

The Amateur Radio community takes its responsibility with regard to emergency communications very seriously. Because of the global nature of Amateur Radio communications, there are many stories of Amateur Radio operators assisting in the rescue of a ship lost at sea, or facilitating a medical intervention is some distant corner of the globe.

Dramatic though these stories may be, most opportunities to serve arise in the local community. And while there is a long tradition of Amateur Radio operators “rising up” to offer our communications expertise in times of emergency, it is generally recognized that we can be most effective if we are organized to operate in a coordinated way during emergencies. Thus, is it essential that we plan and prepare for our role. And it is a fact that most Amateur Radio involvement in emergencies is through the auspices of organized teams of volunteers rather than ad hoc responses.

It is a fallacy that the primary role of Amateur Radio operators is to step in when “normal” communications fail in a disaster. Some kinds of disasters do disrupt communications infrastructure, but this the exception, not the rule. The essential characteristic of disaster response is simply that there is a lot going on, involving hundreds or thousands of responders. The need to organize and coordinate all of this activity quickly overwhelms normal communications channels and creates a demand for additional channels of communications. That is the principal way in which Amateur Radio operators serve — satisfying emergent needs for additional channels of communications, or in simple terms, providing a surge capability.

The themes of organization and coordination are central to emergency preparedness, both within the Amateur Radio community and the larger community we serve. We organize to provide structure to disaster response, identifying different activities that need to be performed, and forming groups of people who are trained and equipped to carry out these activities. Coordination is necessary to ensure that these disparate groups share information, resources, and priorities to operate safely and achieve common goals.

II. The Potential of Amateur Radio

The Amateur Radio community has ample resources that can be brought to bear in disasters, not all of them well-recognized.

Historically, Amateur Radio operators are known for our skills in organizing ourselves into geographically dispersed networks and passing messages on behalf of third parties over these networks. A common scenario is passing health and welfare messages on behalf of disaster survivors to families and friends outside the disaster area. Another example is setting up tactical networks linking shelters, staging areas, or operational sites throughout a disaster area to coordinate delivery of services. We are especially effective at building bridges between disparate response organizations that may lack the means to intercommunicate.

Another area where Amateur Radio operators excel is in intelligence gathering. A prominent example of this is the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program, which relies extensively on observations reported by Amateur Radio operators wherever they happen to be when severe weather threatens. Because Amateur Radio operators are widely dispersed throughout the community, the collective observations provide forecasters a reasonably comprehensive real-time picture of “ground truth” throughout the forecast area. This concept can be extended to damage assessment in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and to any situation where having multiple trained and trusted observers on the ground is of benefit to emergency managers. In addition, MCACS members who have received specialized training in damage assessment may be deployed to conduct “windshield surveys” or more formal damage assessments.

Amateur Radio operators own our own equipment. We can operate across the radio spectrum, from short wave to microwave frequencies. We can operate in voice, data, and even television modes. We have networks of repeaters to provide handheld radio coverage across the DC metro area. Many of us can operate using mobile or portable equipment, completely independent of any base stations or other infrastructure.

Amateur Radio operators tend to divide into two categories—communicators and technical experts. These two skill sets are complementary. Communicators excel in getting the message through with accuracy and speed, and also tend to network easily with served agencies and adapt their operating style to the needs of the moment. The technical types excel at setting up radios, antennas, generators, power distribution, and computers under challenging circumstances.

Here in Montgomery County, the Amateur Radio community is a reflection of the larger community. We have members who are active in the CERT program, fire/rescue, wilderness search-and-rescue, and the Red Cross. We have government employees representing most of the major Federal installations in the County, and most of the larger private employers as well. We are doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, soldiers, clergy, students, and senior citizens. In a disaster, formal and informal Amateur Radio networks provide access to a large pool of resources that are as close as the nearest radio. Last but not least, we can bring in trained teams from other jurisdictions outside the disaster area if needed to augment our local resources, and these teams are similarly equipped and trained in ICS principles. In terms of planning and preparedness, our diversity of experience and affiliations provides ample opportunity for cross-fertilization.

III. RACES, ARES, and MCACS

RACES.  RACES stands for Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. RACES was originally conceived as a communications service, distinct from the Amateur Radio Service, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). You might be wondering what purpose RACES serves. Here is a short answer to that question.

The War Powers Act grants the President the authority to shut down the Amateur Radio Service during a time of war.  RACES was established by the FCC in 1952 primarily as a vehicle for Amateur Radio operators to remain on the air in the event that the President invokes this power, for the express purpose of providing civil defense communications at the direction of civil defense authorities. During the height of the Cold War, elaborate preparations were made for the civil defense, and RACES was one small part of that overall preparedness effort.

In modern times, the term “civil defense” in the RACES regulation has been broadened to encompass an all-hazards approach to emergency planning, preparedness, and management.  However, RACES persists as a wireless communications service in the FCC rules. The rules governing RACES operations are complex and convoluted, but a brief summary follows.

Basically, no person may operate a transmitter in either the Amateur Radio Service or the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service unless the FCC has granted a license to both the station and the operator. Under current law 2, each eligible person who passes an Amateur Radio exam is issued a combined operator/station license for the Amateur Radio Service. That combined license entitles the bearer to establish and operate Amateur Radio stations at any location or locations under his or her physical control (including mobile and portable stations). Under certain circumstances, FCC may also grant or renew station licenses to Amateur Radio clubs and military recreation facilities.

If and when the President chooses to suspend the Amateur Radio Service in a time of war, civil defense authorities at the federal, state, or local level may authorize communications in the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. Such communications are permitted only when three conditions are met:

  • The station is licensed in the Amateur Radio Service and certified by a civil defense organization as being registered with that organization;
  • The station is operated by a licensed Amateur Radio operator who is certified by a civil defense organization as enrolled in that organization; and
  • The communications transmitted by the station have been authorized by the civil defense organization.

There are additional rules governing the types of communications that are permitted, the frequencies that may be used for RACES communications (a subset of the Amateur Radio frequency allocations), and the types of stations that a RACES station may communicate with. 3

In a bona fide emergency, an amateur radio operator may engage in any communications within his or her means as needed to ensure the safety of human life and/or protection of property, when normal communication systems are not available. Thus, as a practical matter, there is little need to utilize RACES unless and until the President finds it necessary to suspend Amateur Radio communications in wartime. This has never occurred since RACES was created in 1952.

In Montgomery County, the local civil defense organization is the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (OEMHS). Montgomery County’s Emergency Operations Plan recognizes MCACS as a resource for emergency communications. In the unlikely event that operation in RACES is needed, OEMHS can be expected to draw from the pool of MCACS members who are Amateur Radio operators to fulfill this need.

ARES.  The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is a national program administered by the American Radio Relay League, or ARRL 4.  ARES consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment for communications duty in the public service when disaster strikes. At the national level, ARRL provides coordination with served agencies in both the public and private sector, and develops training courses and materials to prepare ARES members for emergency operations.

But the bulk of ARES activity occurs at the regional and local levels. Here in Montgomery County, ARES is administered by a Section Emergency Coordinator who oversees ARES operations in Maryland and DC. The Section Emergency Coordinator appoints an Emergency Coordinator for each Maryland county, the City of Baltimore, and the District of Columbia. The Emergency Coordinators, in turn, are responsible to recruit and train ARES members and develop relationships with served agencies in their respective jurisdictions. There is also extensive coordination across jurisdictional boundaries, both within the State of Maryland and the DC metro area. 5

Amateur Radio Clubs. There are a number of active Amateur Radio clubs in and around Montgomery County. The largest of these clubs operate and maintain repeater systems, conduct Amateur Radio license examinations under FCC auspices, provide public service communications at public events, and in general promote the many aspects of Amateur Radio. While these clubs provide direct and indirect support to RACES and ARES—for example, making repeaters available for on-the-air meetings and exercises—RACES and ARES are and should remain distinct entities.

IV. What’s Past is Prologue

Throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, RACES and ARES in Montgomery County were combined into a single organization, on the principle that (1) there is only one pool of Amateur Radio Operators, and (2) the shared mission of both RACES and ARES is best served by a unified organization and command structure 6. At one time, the organization had 140 members, organized into a technical cadre and an operational cadre. Perhaps a third of the membership was active, in terms of routine participation in training and activities 7. Leaders of the organization held joint appointments from the County and ARRL. Most importantly, the organization had defined roles in the County’s emergency plans, and the core of the membership was known and trusted by County officials involved in emergency planning and preparedness.

During this period, Montgomery County RACES/ARES played a role in many emergency situations. For example:

  • We responded to the Air Florida crash, providing communications between the crash site and Red Cross headquarters for the first several days of the response.
  • We created and administered the County’s 4-wheel drive program, delivering essential medical personnel to hospitals in the days before cellular telephones and SUVs were ubiquitous.
  • We set up the Hospital Radio Network and also established patient tracking systems for mass casualty exercises sponsored by the National Disaster Medical System in 1985 and ’86. In one of these exercises, we tracked 650 patients to delivery to more than fifty hospitals throughout Maryland, DC, and Northern Virginia. This project required hundreds of hours of preparation on the part of many individuals. It was nationally recognized and resulted in several published papers on approaches to patient tracking.
  • We performed windshield assessments following several storms that caused considerable property damage in Montgomery County.
  • We led the development of the successful regional SKYWARN program now administered by the NWS Baltimore/Washington Forecast Office.
  1. Federal Communications Commission Regulations; Part 97—Amateur Radio Service, Section 97.1—Basis and Purpose.
  2. 47 U.S.C. 97, often referred to as Part 97 of the FCC Rules.
  3. Normally, Amateur Radio stations may not broadcast to the public at large, and are permitted to engage in two-way communications only with other Amateur Radio stations. RACES stations have broader authorities to communicate with stations in other services, such as Government stations, and/or disseminate information to the public at large (e.g., people who have scanners covering the Amateur Radio frequencies).
  4. ARRL is the principal national membership organization and advocacy group for Amateur Radio Operators, with over 152,000 members.
  5. The National Capital ARES Council provides regional coordination spanning both sides of the Potomac.
  6. The concept of a unified RACES/ARES structure is well documented and has been instituted in many jurisdictions across the country.
  7. The inactive contingent of the membership had several components: (1) the “termites,” i.e., those members who only emerge from the woodwork when something big happens (and may only be of limited utility); (2) people with special expertise or resources who could be depended to serve when needed; and (3) liaison members from other disaster response organizations and served agencies.