Here is a link to a PDF of my article in the May QST about CERT and ARES, which appears below.
From May 2011 QST © ARRL
Here is a statistic I like to toss around, because it explains the future of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service,® at least in my part of the world. It starts with a question: “What is the largest, best-organized, and best-trained Amateur Radio emergency group in San Joaquin County? Is it ARES? RACES? A ham club?” No, it is the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in the City of Tracy, the California community of 80,000 where I live.
Tracy CERT, operated by the fire department, requires its volunteer team leaders to be licensed amateurs, capable of providing longer-distance communication when their teams are in the field. Individual CERT
members who are not hams use short-distance Family Radio Service (FRS) radios to communicate with their leaders. Of the 45 responder-qualified members of Tracy CERT, more than two dozen have become licensed
amateurs, most through a series of one day “HamCram” licensing events.
We follow the HamCram with training to get the new hams familiar with their radios, our frequency plan and net operation. (We have standardized on Yaesu FT-270, FT-60 and the discontinued VX-170 handheld transceivers.) No other group in our county has as many members that are as broadly trained. Almost all of the CERT hams are also ARES members. Since CERT is their primary affiliation, that’s how I count them.
Every CERT member is required to participate in at least 24 hours of CERT training, attend meetings and training sessions at least occasionally. All members have basic Incident Command System (ICS) training
and have been fingerprinted and passed background checks. Each member is also a State of California registered Disaster Service Worker.
Tracy is not the only city in our county with hams in its CERT program. In neighboring Manteca, the police department CERT group has several hams. We are in the process of training perhaps a dozen more. The fire
department has its own group with a half-dozen ham members with some overlapping with CERT membership.
How is this the Future?
People get into CERT because they are interested in preparedness for their families and neighborhoods. Many have a strong “do-gooder” instinct looking for an outlet. CERT activities require communication. Whether
day-to-day training, community events or an actual emergency, CERT members need to talk with one another, CERT leadership and their sponsoring agencies.
While some CERT groups have access to public safety radio systems, these don’t offer the flexibility and “When All Else Fails” capability that Amateur Radio does. Members also don’t get public safety radios to
take home. I “sell” Amateur Radio to CERT members as a valuable tool for helping their community and CERT team that also happens to be a fun and interesting hobby if they choose to head in that direction.
The Role of the HamCram
Once sold, the CERT member needs a quick and easy way to get licensed and radio-trained enough to perform their CERT missions using ham gear. Enter the HamCram, a one day cram session — reading the question pools and answers repeatedly — that ends with the Technician exam.
I always — and only half-jokingly — warn attendees that they are likely to know less about radio when they leave the HamCram than when they arrived. Still, we have a 90 percent success rate, which makes it
easy to build a cadre of hams within a CERT organization.
We follow up with training in how to use a radio and lots of ham propaganda to try to make these new HamCram hams more interested in the hobby. Probably 15 percent take the bait, and the other 85 percent have at least received a good introduction to the capabilities of Amateur Radio. Some of our CERT members are upgrading and starting to get onto HF.
Why ARES Needs CERT
One of the problems many ARES groups and clubs face is the graying of Amateur Radio. Our average age is somewhere in the mid-60s, meaning many hams aren’t the active public servants they used to be. The
pool of traditional “I am really interested in radio” young hams seems to have mostly dried up, our hobby replaced by the Internet and video games in the lives of people both young and old.
Our CERT members tend toward soccer moms and their husbands more than retirees. They are already signed-up for CERT activities, so getting some of them involved in non-CERT ARES activities is not much
of a stretch.
Thus, Tracy CERT has created a pool of licensed operators who can respond either as CERT-trained ARES members or as ARES-trained CERT members, depending on the mission. The Tracy ARES group includes
both CERT and non-CERT members, who work together in training and response operations.
Our non-CERT hams provide advanced ARES and communications capabilities that support CERT leadership and their members in the field. This works out quite well and without the friction that sometimes occurs
in other locations. Does this mean CERT is taking over ARES, or vice versa? Hardly.
While our memberships overlap, each side has core members who think of themselves primarily as either a ham or a CERT member. They have their meetings, we have ours, and sometimes we meet together. Members of one can attend the other group’s training.
This works out quite well, in no small part because Tracy CERT and the Tracy Amateur Radio Club are both young organizations that grew up side-by-side. More established organizations might have to work harder to
make ARES and CERT behave as the sister organizations they should be.
CERT organizations can provide the new blood that many ARES groups and ham clubs need. CERT members may be younger than the general Amateur population and come with a predisposition toward active community service. Amateur Radio provides communications that CERT needs. ARES can provide training, technology and communications leadership to CERT groups.
HamCrams are key to getting CERT members licensed easily and quickly, but must be followed by ongoing communications training. Having standardized radios, all programmed alike, makes it easier for ARES to support CERT members and their communications needs.
CERT and ARES working closely together expands the capabilities of both groups. While CERT is not a traditional entry to Amateur Radio, CERT members are naturals for carrying out our public service commitment to the FCC and the American people. This article is intended to introduce you to the possibilities of CERT and ARES working closely together. Your situation will surely be different from mine.
Still, Amateur Radio and CERT each have something the other needs — people and communications — so it’s worth the effort to make the relationship work.
David Coursey, N5FDL, is Emergency Coordinator of San Joaquin County (CA) ARES, leader of the Tracy ARC, and a member of Tracy CERT. Visit his blog at n5fdl.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional information on organizing a HamCram can be found at www.n5fdl.com/hamcram.