Radio Rescue

So imagine this scenario:  You need help because life safety is at stake and you have no phone service, but your dad’s radio is sitting in the corner, gathering dust.  Can you use it?

The FCC amateur radio Technician exam has a question regarding this – “When may an amateur station use any means of radio communications at its disposal for essential communications in connection with immediate safety of human life and protection of property?”  The General exam asks a very similar question – “When normal communications systems are not available, what means may an amateur station use to provide essential communications when there is an immediate threat to the safety of human life or the protection of property?”

This stuff never happens in real life, you say.  But it does!  Three members of O.M.E.G.A. deployed to support the National MS Society’s Bike MS-150 the weekend of June 25, 2011.  The MS-150 is a grueling 150 mile charity bicycle ride along the hills of the Colorado Front Range.  The 2011 ride starts and ends in Denver with an overnight in Fort Collins.  Radio communications is used to tie together 3500 riders with the event organizers, police, medical services and support crews across 75 miles of challenging road.

Saturday evening around 6 PM we were relaxing on the Colorado State University lawn with one of the other radio operators when a call came in on the radio.  It was a rather strange call as the woman asked for the county sheriff.  We let that go a couple of times, then WØJEN answered.  It was very clear that the caller had just enough radio savvy to use push-to-talk.

The woman on the radio passed the microphone to a man who sounded like a young adult.  He relayed that they were in a cabin with no phone service, waiting for a party of six hikers to return.  The hikers departed in the morning for a four hour hike and were now more than four hours overdue.  The callers decided to try and use the radio in the cabin to call for help, thinking that this was a frequency monitored by the sheriff.

Our job now was to relay a message to the sheriff to get search and rescue out to look for overdue hikers.  The first thing that we needed to do was gather information about where the hikers were supposed to have been hiking and where they were supposed to return to.  We were given a forest road address.  Working under the assumption that the 70cm band call could not have originated very far, we used smart phones to check the vicinity of Fort Collins for the location.  That failed.  More research revealed that the location was actually west of Loveland, southwest of Fort Collins, still in Larimer County.

We got a hold of the Fort Collins Police Department and had them route us over to Larimer County Sheriff.  Then it was a game of getting questions from the sheriff’s dispatcher and gathering the answers from the reporting party.  We identified their location, got names (thus identifying who the radio station belonged to) and the trail that the hikers were supposed to be on.

The sheriff’s office put out a call to Larimer County Search and Rescue.  We continued to function as a communications bridge between the reporting party and the sheriff, fielding questions and providing additional information.  Then the reporting party announced that six hikers walked in through the door.  It was almost 7 PM.  They were five hours overdue, but everyone was okay and we cancelled the request for help.

It was very clear from the very beginning that the calling party was not a licensed radio operator.  While it is true that the FCC mandates that all use of amateur frequencies must be by licensed operators, it is equally important to stress that at times of emergency, extreme measures may come into play.  This was one such time.

We don’t know what led to the hiking party’s five hour delay in getting back.  It could really have been anything and this is an important point to make when addressing general preparedness.  Was the hiking party prepared to be out in the wilderness?  That could be debated since they ended up being so delayed.  We know that cell phone service was not available in the area, but quite clearly radio communications was an option, in this case an option that was not fully exercised.

Were the family and friends left behind ready to deal with an emergency?  Perhaps a little more so than the hikers.  They had a radio and the sense to use it to call for help.  They did not try to go out looking for the missing hikers, which could have made the situation worse.  It can be argued that they didn’t fully understand the radio’s capabilities or who monitors the frequency, but they got lucky and stumbled across someone who was listening and was able to help.

And the group of tired radio operators taking the call?  We learned some lessons, too.  Have a spare battery.  After ten hours on the radio, batteries die.  It was a good thing that multiple radios were present.  Carry a pen and paper.  That makes taking notes a lot easier.  And most importantly, weird calls on the radio can be important.  Don’t ignore them.

There is another question on the General test that asks, “When is an amateur station prevented from using any means at its disposal to assist another station in distress?”  Do you know the answer?  It’s very simple.  Never.  If there is potential danger to human life or welfare and no other form of communications is available, it is okay to break the rules and use a radio without a license to call for help.

We’re happy that we were available to take the call and it should go without saying that neither the sheriff, nor Larimer County Search and Rescue are upset to have received a false alarm.  In this business a false alarm is infinitely preferable to trying to haul a mangled body down the side of a mountain.

Never be afraid to call for help.  It may save a life.

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